ATLANTA - These are difficult times for Mark Martin, who extended his winless streak to 56 races last Monday at Martinsville, Va. But contrary to popular opinion, he believes these are not impossible times.
No matter how heavy the frustration mounts, there is a passion for racing that burns in the eyes of his 9-year-old son Matt. The elder Martin has learned to enjoy success through his son, and it makes all the other problems of a sufferable season seem so trivial.
Watching his son race quarter midgets throughout Central Florida has been an emotional revival for the 42-year-old father. He is reminded that racing is more about commitment, trust and relationships, not speed.
"As a little kid from Arkansas, I've had more success than I could have ever dreamed in racing," Martin said. "I have a lot to be thankful for."
The on-track troubles for the entire Roush Racing army has stirred speculation that bigger isn't always better. With Martin, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, Roush has considerable clout in both talent and resources. And yet, the entire team, each so used to running up front and winning, has struggled.
A man once so consumed by winning now has to find solace in the chase.
Martin, who hasn't finished any worse than eighth in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series point standings since 1989, insists the gains necessary to win on the circuit often come an inch at a time. But as long as he continues to inch forward, there is hope.
"We've had a year where we weren't as competitive on the race track as we've been in the past," Martin said as he prepared for this Sunday's EA Sports 500 at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway. "Hey, I don't know why because we've got everything that we need here, but right now we're being outperformed on the race track by some other teams. That's how it goes in the sport. We've worked as hard as you can work and I guess right now, so maybe we can move past this.
"I think that having a great sponsor and having a great team is secondary. I think that primarily the first ingredient to success is commitment, whether you're an owner or driver or crew chief or team or a sponsor."
Martin was reminded of that recently when his son's focus was on racing for a championship and personal pain.
"I love my son more than anything in the world, so I enjoy talking about him and I'm so incredibly proud," the father said. "We were at the race track a few months ago and, in between the heat race and the features, he got kicked in the eye. It was almost swelled shut. There was a slit there, just barely open, and he was almost in tears. His mother and I tried to get him to go home, but he said he wanted to race because he wanted to get the points."
Unlike his father's racing circuit, quarter midgets aren't bound by sponsor commitments and a million-dollar point fund. It is a sport unspoiled by greed and contracts. A trophy to a young racer is worth more than money because it signifies the culmination of planning, effort and, most important, commitment.
"He drove that race (with the injured eye) and then we took him home," Martin said. "Of course, he had less result than his expectation, so it was a very difficult night. Racing deals you all kinds of blows. You have to race when you're physically in pain, mentally in pain and emotionally in pain. The real winners race through all of that and it also brings you the greatest high and the most joy of anything.
"He is about the only kid that races on the weekend whose dad is not there. He does that by choice. That's his choice. That's commitment. That's a 9-year-old's commitment. If you ever thought what would that commitment be like at 42 years old, you need to take a look at me because that's a drop in the bucket."
Martin said his car has 50 more horsepower than it did five months ago. It also drives better. He and crew chief Jimmy Fennig have changed the way they approach setups since the harder tires being used this year by the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. have dramatically effected the cars.
"We have tried and tried and tried," Martin said of the work and commitment shown by his entire race team this year. "What we do is we keep working - just like we did before we ever got our first win. We work and we work and we work and that's what we still do."
Like father, like son.