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Thursday, May 10, 2007
Martin hoping to add to legacy driving for Hendrick

By Mark Ashenfelter

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- While virtually all eyes in NASCAR are on Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend, Mark Martin quietly will go about making a little history of his own at Darlington Raceway.

Well, don't be surprised if Martin isn't all that quiet come Friday night's Diamond Hill Plywood 200.

"The thrill for me is to be able to drive for Rick Hendrick, and to be able to say that I did that before my career ends as a driver is really special."
-- Mark Martin

Martin, the Busch Series' all-time wins leader with 47, has found much of that success at the track most drivers find too tough to tame. Martin has eight wins at The Lady in Black to go along with 17 top-10s in 27 starts. Most of that success came with Roush Racing, but Martin has teamed up with another powerhouse this year.

Martin will be in the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet usually driven by Kyle Busch, for the first of his three Busch races with HMS this year. Hendrick drivers have won 22 Busch races over the years, making for a potentially potent combination.

Jeff Burton (four Darlington Busch wins) and Matt Kenseth (two) are likely challengers in a race that could easily shape up as a battle between Roush Fenway Racing's current drivers (Kenseth and points leader Carl Edwards) and their former teammates.

For Martin, it'll be his third Busch start of the season, the first two coming with Roush Fenway. He's won races in 14 different seasons and has won poles in 13 years, records he'll be looking to extend on Friday.

Considering how close Busch has come to winning this year -- the Chevrolet Martin will be driving led the most laps at both Atlanta and Texas -- another win hardly would be surprising.

"The way this car has run this year with Kyle in it, if I can get in there and not do something stupid, and do a good job of relaying [information] and integrating and working with the team, then we should have a shot at it," Martin said.

Martin hasn't worked with HMS prior to this and said he really hasn't provided any input into what he'll be looking for from the car. That's mainly because he doesn't think the team needs any of his advice prior to Thursday's practice sessions.

"I see how fast the car is. I see they don't need my input. If they did, I would've gotten involved sooner, but the program is so strong they really don't need my input from a technical side," Martin said. "Actually, I'm thrilled and excited just to have the opportunity to work with another group of really smart people that are really getting it done and are excited to have me drive their car."

Rick Hendrick is certainly excited to add Martin's name to a list of drivers that's a veritable who's who of the sport. In addition to Hendrick's current Nextel Cup stable, the likes of Geoffrey Bodine, Tim Richmond, Benny Parsons, Darrell Waltrip, Ricky Rudd and Terry Labonte have driven for HMS.

This three-race deal came together when Martin was talking with Hendrick about the alliance between HMS and Ginn Racing, the Cup team Martin moved to this year after ending his full-time relationship with Roush.

"We just started talking and he said, 'Hey, I'd like to drive one of your Busch cars one day,' and it just kind of started," Hendrick said. "It's exciting. He's just such an icon. And I think we'll learn something. I think we'll learn a lot from Mark and his input."

The two have quickly formed a mutual admiration society, which is hardly surprising given the success each has achieved in the sport.

"He's the kind of guy that if you can't win a race, you feel good about watching him win 'cause he's just a real gentleman on the track," Hendrick said. "He's helped Kyle when Kyle first came into the sport.

"I kind of compare it to having Darrell [Waltrip] win the Daytona 500 in our car. When I look back at the end of the day and we look at the wins we have and the people that have been part of it, I think it's going to be really neat to have Mark's name on that list."

A win along the way will surprise no one, but even if it doesn't happen, Martin will take something positive from the experience.

"The thrill for me is to be able to drive for Rick Hendrick, and to be able to say that I did that before my career ends as a driver is really special," Martin said. "To have them [Hendrick Motorsports] with their enthusiasm and a chance to work with more really brilliant people that I can maybe learn something from, this is the greatest time in my life."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.