\Mark Martin smiled when told that some people believe he might have lost his edge as the most intense driver on NASCAR's top circuit.
Nothing could be further from the truth, he said.
''I'm not ready to slow down at all. I bleed for it. I'll bleed for that win,'' Martin said.
The suggestion that he might be past his prime at 41 is fueled by a dramatic decline the last two years. Martin got his 32nd career victory in April, but it was only his third since 1998. In the previous two seasons, he won 11 times, including a career-best seven in 1998.
''I still want more than anything to win, and I still believe I have a team capable of winning,'' Martin said as he prepared for the Pennzoil 400 on Sunday in Homestead, Fla.
His Roush Racing teammate, Jeff Burton, scoffs at talk of Martin's supposed slide.
''He is still the best of the best,'' Burton said. ''Mark Martin is a great race driver in the prime of his career. He's still got championships in his future.''
But it's clear Martin has had a miserable and frustrating 2000.
He was a strong factor in the championship race in the last three years and finished no worse than sixth in the points in each of the past 11 seasons. But going to Homestead-Miami Speedway, Martin is eighth.
Although he has managed 19 top-10 finishes and 12 top-fives, much of the talk of decline began during a midseason string of nine races without a top 10 -- almost unthinkable for Martin.
''It hasn't been an easy season for us,'' said Martin, who underwent back surgery last winter. ''There's no more pain and I wouldn't use that as an excuse, anyway. We just haven't been able to get the kind of results we'd like.''
But nobody at Roush is depressed, particularly not Martin, who says his plan is simple: continue to win.
Although it's been seven months since his last victory -- in Martinsville, Va. -- Martin says any doubts he might have are not based on the slump.
''I always wonder when I win if that will be the last one,'' he said. ''But, realistically, I think winning that early in the season, you expect more good things to happen.''
He says the level of competition is making it more difficult to win, and he's right. Tony Stewart leads the series with five victories. In the previous five seasons, Jeff Gordon led with a 7-10-10-13-7 run.
Martin concedes that the team might not have had the right combination this season. But Roush, who fields five Winston Cup cars and has owned Martin's Ford since 1988, isn't worried about his driver.
''We've both been around a long time now, but I think Mark has still got a lot of great racing in him,'' Roush said. ''He's better now than he's ever been, and the knowledge that he brings to the race track couldn't be replaced.''
For Martin, who admits he is sometimes too intense for his own good, a rare off-track distraction is bringing him pleasure and easing his burden these days.
His 8-year-old son, Matt, is racing go-karts -- and winning.
''I do love racing, it's my life, but racing is a lot different today,'' Martin said. ''I have so much fun when I go to the race track with my son, I just can't tell you. It does not compare.
''It reminds me of when I started racing. It makes me feel the same way; it's a ball. And it's not just my son. I watch some of those other kids drive and I get so inspired and so excited.''
Martin wasn't far behind as Gordon won three Winston Cup titles in the four seasons before 1999 to take control of the circuit. He has four third-place finishes and three seconds in the standings since 1989.
But he's been unlucky more than once. The seven-victory season in 1998 would have been good enough to win the title just about any time. But Martin had his best year as Gordon was winning a record-tying 13 times.
Could he live with not winning a championship, if that's the way Martin's career plays out?
''Very easily,'' Martin said. ''Of course, we'd like to be champions. I'd love to give Jack Roush a Winston Cup championship, and the rest of the team.
''But I won't be embarrassed or sad if it doesn't happen. I just want to be competitive, to be considered the kind of racer who goes out there with a chance to win every race. The day I can't do that, I'm out of here.''
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