CONCORD, N.C. -- Mark Martin doesn't have to think back too far to remember the time when it appeared he might never win again on stock car racing's premier circuit.
Martin was feeling reflective Saturday night after he won The Winston for the first time, adding the all-star event to a list of 1998 achievements that includes a series-leading three victories in the first 10 races.
"This is pretty incredible," he said. "I'm so blessed with the career that I have, the success I've had in the past and really with what I have going on right now. It's just priceless. I've never dreamed in my lifetime that I'd be working with a race team that feels like this right now. The high of my life is to go to the racetrack and be with my guys or to go to my race shop right now."
Two years ago, Martin couldn't say that. His 1996 ledger was marked by repeated strong runs that always seemed to end in frustration, be it bad tires, fuel problems or engine trouble.
By the time the season ended, he had four second-place finishes, five thirds, three fourths and a pair of fifths -- but not a single victory.
After finishing fifth in the points in 1996, Martin began the 1997 season by leading the most laps in the Daytona 500 before slipping back to a seventh-place finish. It seemed to signal another difficult year ahead, but his luck turned in the spring when he won on the road course at Sears Point. It was one of four victories he had last year, when he wound up third in the driver standings.
He has carried that over to 1998, keeping his car running in every race so far and winning at Las Vegas, Texas and California to push his winnings to nearly $1.2 million with more than two-thirds of the season still remaining.
Martin led twice for 31 of the 70 laps in Saturday night's all-star race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but Jeff Gordon appeared to be the class of the field in the final 10-lap segment. Gordon was pulling away from everybody -- with Martin in second -- when Gordon suddenly slowed entering the first turn on the final lap.
Martin wasn't sure what to make of Gordon falling off the pace.
"The first thing I thought was, `He's going to let me catch up so we can put on a show.' That would never happen, but what other logical thing could shoot through your mind?," Martin recalled. "When he never started going again, I couldn't believe it."
While Gordon could do little more than coast back to the garage and try to explain why his car ran out of fuel, Martin cruised to the victory and a payout of $257,500.
Martin said his biggest reward came when he spotted his crew members as he was driving to Victory Lane.
"They were all out there on pit road, and I looked in their faces and man, it just made me want to cry," he said. "It's just unbelievable."
Martin's victory came on the same track where the Winston Cup circuit returns this weekend for a points-paying race, the Coca-Cola 600. It begins a stretch of races at tracks where Martin has already won in his career -- Charlotte, Dover, Richmond and Michigan.
"I don't know how long it's going to last, but I have a feeling that things are going to be pretty decent for us for a pretty good while because it's the guys who are doing the work. It's the effort that is being put out that is rendering the results," he said. "It's one thing to have bad luck, but right now we've got really good engines, really decent fuel mileage, really good cars, really good handling -- everything it takes. And right now we're on a roll with some luck behind us."
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