Martin has recharged his racing battery

After lunch was served and the tables cleared, there were still several media types hanging around. Martin asked if they would like to see some of his racing and personal memorabilia?

Martin walked the reporters through the building, pointing out the significance of the items.

There was a handwritten note from his father, telling Mark the finer points of flying his twin-engine airplane. Most would have provided a pilot with an official manual, but the hand-written note was more in tune with his father’s style. There were trophies and fire suits and such from his days racing in the American Speed Association, and there were similar spoils of victory from his years in the Cup and Nationwide series.

Martin confessed that day that he didn’t really see the trophies as he walked past them. He was too busy chasing the next one. His time for reflecting on his career would have to come later, in another phase of his life.

Martin went on to run a partial schedule for two seasons, and returned full-time in 2009, posting remarkable results.

After a dismal start, he bounced back to win five races, including one in the Chase, led the standings for a time and ended the season as runner-up to Cup champion Jimmie Johnson.

Recently, Martin was asked if his time off made him look at his trophies in a different light. He said he still doesn’t really see them, but the brief respite made a big difference.

For much of his Cup career, he sometimes seemed like the unhappiest and most pessimistic driver in the garage. Now the opposite is often true.

He credits much of the change to the time he took to recharge his batteries, so to speak.

“What it did do was really make me appreciate the time, the thrill, the excitement, the experience I had, the enthusiasm and electricity I felt for my race team, not only in Victory Lane, but every day I got to work with them,” he said. “It’s all those people that I got to work with, all the good times.”

People might have grown tired of hearing him say how happy he was last season, but he makes no apologies.

“I used to be Mr. Not So [happy and optimistic],” he said. “People complained about that, too. But my life is good. Everything is good. I’m doing exactly what I want to be doing.

“I love being at the race track and working with people. I’m excited to get to Daytona and see all the competitors and see the fans again.

“Those two years were critical in me fully appreciating all that.”

Now, at 51, in what is most certainly the twilight of his driving career, he’s poised to win the Cup championship that has always eluded him.

“I am more ready today than I was a year ago right now,” he said. “I know that my race team is more ready than they were a year ago right now. I know our pit stops are faster than they were a year ago right now. I know that we have a better understanding of our race cars than where we were a year ago right now.

“Those things I do know. I'm not Mr. Optimistic, I'm not Mr. Pessimistic, I'm Mr. Realistic. And realistically speaking, I can't tell you what the result will be in 2010, but we are better than we were a year ago. I just don't know how much better our competition is.”

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