DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Hidden in the dark clouds and rain camped over the Daytona International Speedway for the past week -- and threatening tonight's Pepsi 400 -- has been Mark Martin's smile.
The 2-mile racetrack is fewer than 10 minutes from his home, but it has remained one of his least favorite places to drive a stock car.
His memories of Daytona are horrific. He's been on his roof once at Daytona in his career, but he's never been to Victory Lane following a stock car race. His routine on the most famous track on the circuit has been hauntingly familiar -- crashes, blown engines and wasted opportunities.
And yet, the man who rarely expresses emotion seems happy about tonight's 400-mile race (8, CBS).
"This is the same car we had here in February and the same car we had at Talladega (in April)," Martin said. "That's kind of unusual for us. We're used to wrecking one and having to bring out another one that doesn't run as good. This is the one we've been working on since the winter, and it's the quickest car we've got.
"These guys have put me in a great plate race car, and it's kind of fun to come here to the racetrack when you can run good."
Martin's Valvoline Ford Taurus will start fifth tonight.
Dale Jarrett's Ford is on the pole. His average speed for one lap during Thursday's time trials was 187.547 mph.
Ricky Rudd, Jarrett's Robert Yates Racing teammate, is second at 187.122 mph.
Qualifying hasn't been a problem for Martin at Daytona in the past. Finishing races, especially in one piece, has turned out to be the biggest challenge.
When he finished second in the NASCAR Winston Cup points race in 1990, he finished 21st in the Daytona 500 and 11th in the Pepsi 400. When he was second again in 1994, he was 13th in the 500 and fourth in the 400. And in 1998, when he finished second again in the standings, he was 38th in the 500 and 16th in the 400.
In addition to disappointment, Daytona stood for pain a year ago. Martin crashed along the backstretch in the final practice session. The car that qualified third for the main event was destroyed, and the driver came away with a broken wrist and knee.
"(Last year's race) was tougher than any," he said. "I just can't tell you. It hurt so bad I can't even remember. It was just unbelievable. We didn't have anybody to get in the car, and I wasn't going to get out anyway. It was just a lot of pain.
"The wrist, with the little cast-thing we had on it, just about killed me, but we got through it."
It wasn't until five days after the crash that doctors realized Martin's knee was broken. He had surgery on it a day later and was back in the race car a day after that.
"(The pain) probably makes me more determined," he said. "That might be a shame, I don't know. But adversity typically gets a determined response from me. It always has. I've always stood up to it whether I was being bullied by somebody I couldn't handle or whatever. It's always sort of forced me, maybe not to rise to the occasion, but it's sort of pulled everything that I have."
During the off-season, Martin also had surgery to repair some herniated disks in his back. So for the first time in years, he's back at Daytona without pain and with a realistic chance of winning.
Martin's trip to Daytona this week also came with some fanfare. His team announced Thursday that it would be sponsored by Pfizer's Viagra in 2001. Valvoline, a longtime sponsor for Martin and Roush Racing, will remain as an associate sponsor. Pfizer reportedly will pay $12 million a year to put its name on Martin's car.
"Injuries are one thing, and having back problems or broken bones that's one thing, and that's why I said I'm so excited I was chosen to be on the men's health initiative," he said. "Everything else I've ever done in motorsports, I've tried to sell the fans something. I never tried to give them something that could possibly make a difference in their whole quality of life, so I think there's something really special about that."
The thrust of Pfizer's role in racing will remain health screenings at each racetrack. The checkups include screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar. Martin already is a spokesman for the screenings -- a program called "Tune Up for Life."
"I believe a year or a year-and-a-half from now I will have a letter that comes to me from a fan that says, `Thank you for saving my daddy's life,' or `my husband's,"' Martin said. "That's very possible and that's important."
All the more reason to smile.
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