INDIANAPOLIS -- He is NASCAR's resident purveyor of gloom and doom, a perennial bridesmaid whose silver lining always turns out to be gray. Mark Martin imparts optimism about as sparingly as misers part with $100 bills. Which is why it was so strange to see him in the interview room last month at Pocono Raceway, boldly telling anyone who would listen that he fully intended to win at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
"I'm planning on winning the Brickyard in the 8 car," he said in a very un-Martin-like moment. "We've got the stuff. We've got the team. The cars are awesome on flat tracks, Phoenix and Richmond. I have never planned on anything any more than my plan is for the Brickyard. That's the crown jewel, and if you look at how that car ran at Phoenix, I believe we can adapt that setup to work there."
I'm not sure I did a Mohammed Ali. ... I believe that you can run the same stuff here that you can run at Phoenix. And I believe that we had the fastest car on the racetrack at Phoenix. It's that simple.
He's not blowing smoke. The 49-year-old Martin had the best race of his abbreviated 2008 campaign in April at Phoenix, a track that's much shorter than Indianapolis but shares the characteristic of very little banking. He led 68 laps that night, but pitted for fuel at the end and placed fifth. That, combined with a season-best, third-place finish two weeks later at Richmond, another short, relatively flat layout, have the NASCAR veteran feeling like he's capable of kissing the bricks Sunday (watch video).
He may have stopped short of guaranteeing a victory Friday, but he didn't back down.
"I'm not sure I did a Mohammed Ali," Martin said. "You know, I do feel very confident that we'll have a car here that will be strong enough to be a contender to win this race. I might say that every week, maybe. But, you know, believing it deep down inside, I usually know that's a bigger challenge than it might be here this week. I believe that you can run the same stuff here that you can run at Phoenix. And I believe that we had the fastest car on the racetrack at Phoenix. It's that simple."
Oh yeah, and he's finished in the top 10 in his past three races at Indianapolis, as well as four of his past five. In 1998 he was the runner-up -- a position he's become unfortunately accustomed to, given his four second-place finishes in Cup championship points, and his two-hundredths-of-a-second loss to Kevin Harvickin the 2007 Daytona 500. Martin's legacy needs no bolstering, given his 35 career victories. But a Brickyard title might help make up for so many of the big ones that have gotten away.
Don't tell him that. "I don't even think about what it would mean to me," he said. But In the garage area, it would be a popular victory.
"I could be an inch off his bumper and at his door for the win, and I'm going to be happy for him. That's the type of guy and driver that he is," said four-time Brickyard winner Jeff Gordon.
"When he retired, or so-called retired, to me, I wasn't as disappointed as him but I was pretty disappointed that he never won a championship because in my opinion in all the years that I raced against him he's one of the best out there. All the guys that I've raced against that I feel like are top-notch experienced drivers, they've all won championships, and he is to me the most deserving guy out there to have one. And he doesn't, so I was pretty disappointed. Whether it's a Daytona 500 or Brickyard 400, I'm certainly going to be happy for him."
Confidence can make a big difference. Former crew chief Andy Petree remembers coming to Indianapolis in 1995 with a car that was good, but not great. No matter. Soon after the team unloaded, Petree remembered, driver Dale Earnhardt told the crew he was going to win the race. He went on to do just that.
... Mark always thinks the world is coming to and end and the sky is falling. So for him to say that he has a shot at winning, he's feeling pretty good about things, and I believe him.
"We didn't have a lot of reasons to say we were going to come in here and dominate," said Petree, now an ESPN analyst. "We didn't dominate, but we did win. That confidence he came in here with carried us along until we won that race. I just think it's worth a lot. If Mark is saying that, I'd say watch out for Mark Martin."
Another former Brickyard winner, Dale Jarrett, said Martin has never lacked confidence. He's just been hesitant to show it publicly.
"What he portrayed there is the confidence that is inside of Mark Martin. You don't see that a lot," said Jarrett, also now a TV analyst. "Obviously, he knows as well as the rest of us that talent-wise he's second to none out here, ever. I think he's always had that confidence inside him, but he was a little hesitant to put that out in front of everybody, because in this sport unfortunately you're disappointed more than you're happy about results. The guy who's won the most races, Richard Petty, has won 200 and lost 1,200. So Mark doesn't want to have that disappointment out there, but he's always had that confidence inside. He's getting a little older now, so he's ready to speak his mind and let everybody know what he's thinking."
That's what startles his peers the most -- not the fact that Martin thinks he can win, but that he's saying it out loud, as if challenging all the demons of his professional past to just try and bite him one more time. While his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team hasn't won a race since Martin Truex Jr.'s victory at Dover in June of 2007, Martin has a strong history at Indianapolis, and a confidence level that has people wondering just who this short guy with the crew cut really is.
"I know it's tough to think about other people outside the guys who have been dominating right now, but Mark can make up the difference in a lot of situations," said former Brickyard winner Jimmie Johnson. "Also, you have to look at him and think of when he goes out on a limb and says something like that, Mark always thinks the world is coming to and end and the sky is falling. So for him to say that he has a shot at winning, he's feeling pretty good about things, and I believe him."
Martin isn't saying anything to dispel that notion. "Our flat-track program has been exceptionally strong, especially at Phoenix and Richmond. And I expect that it will be really well here," he said. "They have something really working on the flatter racetracks for us. And this team is a team that can do it. You know, we might be due."
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