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Martin loosens up for final full season

Posted: Wednesday, February 16, 2005

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Whether Mark Martin wins his final Daytona 500 or not, or finally wins a series championship, he plans to have fun, fun, fun this year.

People who know Martin find that attitude change surprising.

''Mark has always been a very, very intense person,'' said Matt Kenseth, who Martin mentored to NASCAR Nextel Cup stardom. ''Since he began telling people 2005 will be his last season, there's been a real difference. He seems to be happier.''

It's true, Martin says.

''I believe I have changed,'' Martin said, grinning. ''I know for a fact I'm happier now than I was a year ago. I think it's because I understand myself more than I have in the past.''

But Martin, who acknowledges he tends to be obsessive about whatever goal he sets, said this is all part of a master plan he devised six years ago.

''When I signed my last contract with Roush Racing in 1999, I had a plan,'' Martin said. ''I didn't really tell anybody, but I knew what it was. I wanted to be able to do things my way, a way that made sense to me.''

That means walking away from Cup racing while he's still competitive.

''I don't want to be embarrassing myself,'' the 45-year-old driver said. ''I don't want to be caught out here finishing 25th every week.''

Not likely.

Martin is coming off a season in which he finished fourth in the final standings and was in contention for the title up to the last race of the year. He goes into Sunday's season-opening Daytona 500 as one of the favorites — and certainly the sentimental choice.

And admiring is how Martin is feeling these days, although not necessarily about his racing.

''Looking at going to my last Daytona 500 doesn't phase me,'' he said. ''It's all about relationships. Everything means more to me now; the people I've known and relationships I've had.''

Martin has had a tremendous amount of success during a Cup career that dates to 1981. A 30-foot high wall of trophies and awards and at his office on the outskirts of Daytona Beach attest to that.

There have been 34 Cup victories and four series runner-up finishes, a record 45 race wins in the Busch Series and four titles in the all-star International Race of Champions series.

Looking at his wall of hardware, Martin shook his head and shrugged.

''You know, it's invisible to me,'' he said. ''I'm here almost every day and I don't even see it.''

That's why he's going to move most of trophies, along with old cars and other memorabilia, into a museum he's building in his hometown of Batesville, Ark., next to his new Ford dealership.

''I'm a fan first,'' he said. ''I was a fan before I drove and I'll always be a fan. I want people who are interested to be able to see some of these things. I'm not doing it for any gain. I don't expect it to make any money, just to be someplace my fans can go to see some pretty interesting things.''

The self-effacing Martin has rarely taken credit for his successes, usually pointing to the car or the team or some stroke of luck for his wins and titles.

But now, nearing the end of his career, he can at least admit he's ''done OK.''

''I don't know if I really truly believed I would be this much of a success when I was standing around those little dirt tracks in Arkansas. I know I'm not the greatest that ever was, but I'm proud of what I've accomplished,''

Finishing up his Cup career won't be the end of his racing, either. The plans haven't been finalized, but Martin said he can still see some truck racing, and maybe even a Busch race or two, in his future.

''The main thing, though, is I'm going to be doing what I want to do when I want to do it,'' he said. ''I'm going to have some fun.''



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