MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Even at 54, Mark Martin is still learning to drive a stock car. He’s in his 16th year in NASCAR, but he admits he doesn’t know everything – especially about Martinsville Speedway.
The driver with more starts at Martinsville than anyone else in today’s STP Gas Booster 500 was eager to get some helpful tips from Denny Hamlin to prepare for today’s race.
Hamlin was just as eager to help since Martin will be driving his No. 11 Toyota while he recovers from a broken vertebra sustained in a race two weeks ago at Fontana.
“It’s exciting for me to work with all new people, spotter and all,” Martin said. “It has me up on my toes paying attention and trying to get in sync with a whole group of people and new faces, but that’s a good thing.”
Today’s race is the only time Martin will fill-in for Hamlin. Brian Vickers, who will drive Martin’s No. 55 Toyota today, will take over in relief next week at Texas Motor Speedway.
Martin knows he faces a lot of challenges today, especially after qualifying 35th. And while Martin has two career victories in 48 starts at Martinsville, it’s a track that doesn’t rank as one of his favorites.
“I have had a long conversation with Denny about what he feels and what he thinks the way he does, runs this race track and I’ve told him the things, my experiences and what I think and they line up closely,” Martin said.
“They are some things that I’m going to be looking for that I haven’t as hard in the past that he suggested and we will work together to try to get the best result that we can. That’s what we’ll do.
“I have some strengths. It’s not youth and exuberance, although I might have a little bit of that in me somewhere. It is experience and the things that I have had and the things that I’ve done and also the opportunity to work with so many different people throughout my career.”
Martin said he’s watched Hamlin closely during all nine of his seasons, and he’s learned on of Hamlin’s secrets – not wearing out the rear tires. The challenge now is to figure out how he does it.
Adding to the challenge is the new Generation 6 race car and a new tire compound from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.
Martin hopes that puts everyone on a level playing field when the race starts.
“Everyone will probably have to adjust to some of those changes,” he said. “It’s an excellent place to start for all of us and we will collaborate on what the car feels like and what I think it needs.”
Some of Hamlin’s mentoring may have started working on Saturday. Martin improved to 17th-fastest in the morning practice, and he was 20th overall in the final session.
For Martin, today’s race is a chance to create new memories at Martinsville. He’s with a race team that has a proven record there, and he’s being tutored by a driver who’s developed a knack to getting around the place.
“The fact that I wasn’t here last year makes me appreciate much more being here – the drive to the race track and everything else.” He said. “Not being immersed completely in the sport has certainly changed my perspective. I appreciate everything that I have and every opportunity that I have more than I ever did before.”