One by one the visitors filed into Victory Lane, eager to pay their respects to Mark Martin.
AVONDALE, Ariz. — One by one the visitors filed into Victory Lane, eager to pay their respects to Mark Martin.
Jimmie Johnson pushed past a throng of fans to get there, while NASCAR president Mike Helton weaved through the grandstands and across the track. Tony Stewart set aside his disappointment from finishing second to make his visit, and Jack Roush stopped by with heartfelt happiness.
Race fans annually vote Dale Earnhardt Jr. as NASCAR's most popular driver, but after Martin's win Saturday night at Phoenix International Raceway, it was obvious the honor truly belongs to the beloved veteran.
"There's nobody that dislikes Mark," said second-place finisher Stewart. "Mark has taught us all a lot about what it takes to be not only a good driver in this series, but a good competitor and somebody that everybody respects."
In 27 years of NASCAR racing, Martin has touched too many competitors to count.
He never viewed a raw young driver as potential competition, and instead offered his counsel about on-track etiquette, finishing races, handling a race car and balancing the job demands. Time and time again, drivers admit that when in a precarious position, they often attack it with a "what would Mark Martin do?"
"He taught you a lot while you were running those races," Stewart said. "And when you had a good day against Mark, and when you did things right and you watched him and learned from him, that just accelerated the learning curve."
Martin's reach stretches well beyond the race track. A fitness fanatic who obsessively monitors his diet, he's managed to coax almost everyone around him to take better care of their bodies.
When he joined Hendrick Motorsports this season, he talked team owner Rick Hendrick into a fitness routine that helped him shed 20 pounds. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. has traded in Tostitos for tuna salad on crackers, and has added a workout routine to his weekly schedule.
"My dad bought me a book called "Strength Training" by Mark Martin when I was a kid, and I was like 'Man, this guy is built like a brick,'" said third-place finisher Kurt Busch, a former teammate of Martin's when they both drove for Roush.
"The guy has been at the top of his game for 30 years in this sport, it's unbelievable to watch. If I'm halfway as competitive as he is when I'm in my 50s, that would be an accomplishment."
At 50 years, three months and nine days, Martin became the third-oldest winner in NASCAR history with Saturday night's victory. He broke a 97-race winless streak dating back to Kansas in 2005, and solidified what everyone inside NASCAR already knew: The guy is still at the top of his game.
It's what has made walking away from the sport so hard for Martin, who has tried, and failed, to ease his way into retirement.
He wanted 2005 to be his last season, but replacing him turned into a complicated mess and Roush coaxed him into another year. He still longed for a break the next year, but didn't want to completely walk away.
Roush didn't have a partial ride to offer, but he found a limited schedule that would work for him with new team owner Bobby Ginn.
How good was the new arrangement? Martin nearly won the season-opening Daytona 500, then stepped out of the car a month later as planned for a two-race break.
While leading the points.
His sabbatical was mind-boggling to the many people who wondered why the man considered the greatest driver to never win a Cup championship would walk away from an apparent shot at that elusive title.
Martin said Saturday night he's never regretted that decision.
"I have a reputation going of being a flip-flop, and I have flip-flopped on some things. But I didn't flip flop on that, and I'm glad that I did what I did," he said. "It was my commitment to myself and to my family, and it's what I needed to do. And I wouldn't have been a happy person had I gone forward. I needed that.
"That's changed me, and I believe that everyone that knows me has seen a difference in me. I needed to do what I did."
He skipped 24 races the past two seasons, and those weekends off re-energized Martin and renewed his commitment to racing. Then Hendrick came along, dangling in front of him a full season in the No. 5 car. Everyone knows the opportunity included another shot at a title — he's finished second in the championship race four times — but Martin insists he never looked at the job offer with dreams of hoisting the Sprint Cup title.
To him, Hendrick offered nothing more than a chance to make his way back to Victory Lane.
"I'll give it hell, but that's not why I took this ride," he said. "I took this ride to drive a fast race car, and maybe get a chance to win a race."
After a rough start to the season — two mechanical failures and a blown tire dropped him to 34th in the points — Martin has moved within striking distance of the Chase for the championship. He gained five positions Saturday night and is now 13th in the standings, just nine points out of the final Chase qualifying spot.
Martin didn't want to hear about it.
"I'm not going to wreck a good time by worrying about a championship or points," he said. "I'm having a ball. Just let me have fun. Let me enjoy this. This is the opportunity of a lifetime, you know, and that's where I am on that."