Welcome to Mark Martin's world
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- What if we lived in a world where there was no Chase for the Sprint Cup title, where we lived for each race as though it were a Super Bowl weekend, as it once was for so many?
What if we lived in a world where we lived for that special moment -- the pole or a trip to Victory Lane -- with points and the Top 35 rule as secondary thoughts?
What if we lived in a world where each weekend was like the All-Star Race, where winning was all that mattered?
Let me tell you: We'd live in Mark Martin's world.
Martin didn't always live in this world. He wasn't always the driver with the biggest and brightest smile in the Sprint Cup garage. There was a time when he was so wrapped up in trying to win the title that eluded him for so long -- he has five runner-up finishes -- that he was miserable.
He raced for every point as though his life depended on it.
Now he races for the joy of it.
You won't see Martin at Talladega Superspeedway this weekend because he's running a partial schedule, as David Pearson, perhaps the greatest driver this sport has seen, did for most of his career. He's taking the race off because he's not a fan of restrictor-plate racing.
More importantly, he's taking it off because he can, turning the wheel over to team owner Michael Waltrip.
It's a good place to be. It's a place many fans have suggested they'd like the sport to be.
Martin understands more than ever now why some don't particularly care for the Chase. He understands why some are frustrated that the sport has become so wrapped up in the sterling silver trophy and $5.7 million check (about five times what Dale Earnhardt got for the 1991 title) that goes to the champion that the individual prize each weekend doesn't seem to mean what it once did.
Remember when you cared about who won the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington, the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway and The Winston 500 at Talladega Superspeedway more than who won the championship?
Martin understands that better now. He understands how the final prize puts so much pressure on the competitors that they are reluctant to race as hard for every position each week as they might if the penalty for a bad finish wasn't so harsh.
"Anytime you make a trophy bigger or anytime you pay more money, it becomes more important," Martin said. "That trophy and that check has gotten really big. Now it is the focus of every single race. After the race, they don't talk about who ran third. They talk about who ran 11th for the last 10 races in a row and is fifth in points.
"But for me and some of the fans, the race is what I watch on Sunday or Saturday. That's what I get excited about. That's all I care about."
In a perfect world, that's all any competitor would care about. They'd live for the individual weekends, as Martin does, not for what awaits at the end of the 36-race rainbow.
But the world hasn't been perfect for a long, long time. Sports in general have become about the final prize, the final paycheck, whether it's the NCAA basketball tournament or the NFL playoffs.
And almost everyone in the Cup garage will tell you the pressure it takes to win is worth handling for the opportunity to win.
"You sign up to win the championship," Waltrip said. "When you're young and focused on that, that's what it's all about. I would live for that. That would be the best thing in the whole world.
"Then you get to a different place in life. That's where I am, and I think that's where Mark is. He's to a point where he says, 'I did that. It was awesome.' But I would never say there's too much emphasis on the Chase, or too much emphasis on winning a championship. That's what people are paid to do."
With that comes an incredible pressure, whether it's from owners or sponsors, or self-imposed. For some, it takes away some of the joy of an individual weekend. It makes drivers more reluctant to take chances.
Maybe that's why there haven't been any wrecks the past three races, something that hasn't happened since at least 1990. Maybe that's why drivers are willing to celebrate a fifth-place finish almost like it was a win.
"Points have always been such a big factor," Jeff Burton said. "What Mark gets to do, he ain't got to worry about it. He flew home with me from Kansas. He ran really well. We ran like crap. He broke, finished [33rd], but he ran good and was happy as hell.
"Five years ago, he would have been pouting."
He even seems happy being Waltrip's straight man in commercials for primary sponsor Aaron's.
"A long time ago, people would call Mark 'Igor,'" Waltrip said. "He'd go, 'Well, what's going to go wrong now?' He's been totally transformed. He's the most positive, energetic, appreciative person I've ever met.
"He thanks me all the time for this. I say, 'I appreciate that, but thank you.'"
Martin has helped validate Michael Waltrip Racing as a top organization. He has done it with his mentoring and with his performance.
Points have always been such a big factor. What Mark gets to do, he ain't got to worry about it.” -- Jeff Burton
In seven races -- he took Bristol and Martinsville off -- Martin has two poles and four top-10s. He likely would have had five top-10s were it not for a late engine issue at Kansas. Defending Cup champion Tony Stewart also has four top-10s but with two more races.
Not impressed yet? Consider that Martin is only three points behind Jeff Gordon (17th) in the standings despite getting none for two events. And with help from Brian Vickers, he has the No. 55 car 10th in owner points.
No wonder Martin smiles all the time now. He's feeling some of the "magic" he felt in 2009 when he won five races and finished second in points at Hendrick Motorsports.
"It's amazing that we're able to go fast every week and have fun doing it," Martin said.
A big reason Martin can have fun is he doesn't feel the pressure of making the Chase. Matt Kenseth remembers times at Roush Fenway Racing when Martin was on his game like he is now but drove himself crazy trying to win the title.
Kenseth saw firsthand how the demands of racing, testing and making fan appearances wore down Martin.
"I remember times when Mark was kind of miserable," Kenseth said.
The Chase has been good for NASCAR. It's added drama to the final 10 races that didn't always exist under the old format, when the champion was crowned on his accomplishments for 36 races.
It's gotten so big that many found it hard to believe that Jamie McMurray was serious in 2010 when he said he wouldn't trade his Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 wins for a trip to the Chase and an opportunity at the title.
Few live in that world.
"It's a lot of pressure," NASCAR vice president for competition Robin Pemberton said of making the Chase. "That pressure can make you miserable.
"A guy like Mark, not having to run every race, the world is off your shoulders for all intents and purposes."
It's a world of living for the moment, for the weekend, not a big check at the end. It's a world many of you say you miss.
"It's not about who is crowned champion," Martin said. "It's about the race. That's what people get excited about. That's what it's about."
Or could be, if we all lived in Martin's world.