CONCORD, N.C. -- Based solely on how well he continues to perform on the track, and the strength of his No. 55 Aaron's Toyota team, it would not be far-fetched to label Mark Martin a favorite to qualify for this year's Chase For The Sprint Cup.
Except for the fact that Martin, who just turned 54, will once again be splitting the driving duties of the Michael Waltrip Racing entry with teammates Brian Vickers and co-owner Michael Waltrip.
"I did that once," Martin said, managing a laugh in spite of the fact that he no doubt gets asked about returning to full-time competition about as often as he climbs into a race car.
For the second consecutive year, Martin will be competing in the majority of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races for the team -- 24 points races as well as both The Sprint Unlimited At Daytona and the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race, which are non-points events.
Vickers is scheduled to compete in nine races while Waltrip will compete in three of the series' four restrictor-plate stops for the team.
Of more importance, Martin said, is making sure the No. 55 team is as competitive as possible, not only for 2013 but for the following season as well. By then, he said, he will be focusing his efforts elsewhere.
"I don't expect to be in it (in 2014)," he said. "That's not my goal. My goal is to help Rodney (Childers, crew chief) make the 55 team a very, very sought after ride for 2014. That's my whole mission. It's not anything personal for me. I'll take a trophy (anytime) I can get one, don't get me wrong. But it's really important to make that a highly sought after ride.
"Rodney Childers is an amazing crew chief and I want to see him get to run for a championship. He and I have built a really strong tie and I hope to be able to help him beyond 2013."
What Martin will be doing beyond the 2013 season, however, is anyone's guess. It's not something that concerns the veteran racer at this time. While he has discussed what his role might be going forward, he said it's "way too soon" to look too far down the road.
The 2012 season was Martin's first with MWR, and while running the limited schedule, Martin still managed five top-five and 10 top-10 finishes, as well as four poles. His points finish of 26th was higher than 10 others who competed in more races during the year.
A runner-up five times in the battle for the championship, Martin has 40 career wins in Cup, as well as 49 in Nationwide and seven in the Camping World Truck Series.
So what's next for the driver who coyly admits he'll "still be around?"
"This year," he said, "having fun and being part of the organization."
His presence is appreciated by everyone at MWR, but perhaps none more than Vickers, who is considered the likely candidate to take over the ride full time in 2014.
"You learn a lot over time, but you only learn from one perspective," Vickers said when asked about Martin's influence. "When you take knowledge from a different perspective, from another set of eyes, it's always going to be unique and different; there's always something to learn from it. When you take in perspective from not just another set of eyes, but that set of eyes, it's valuable.
"Just watching him in action, how he interacts with the team, how he is always so positive, how he drives the car. I've really picked his brain."
Clint Bowyer, who along with Martin Truex Jr. fields one of the two remaining Cup entries at MWR, calls Martin "a class act."
"He's a racer," said Bowyer. "He's driven beyond belief. His focus and determination is incredible and is just a great asset for our program and to be around as an individual."
Waltrip describes himself and Martin as not only partners, but they also bond over being "the two old guys," he said, adding that he'd be open to keeping Martin behind the wheel if such an opportunity presented itself.
"I love the way he became engaged at MWR in 2012 and just encourage him to continue to be a part of the 55 team even if he and I aren't driving in 2014," Waltrip said. "Maybe we can be supportive of (the) future driver and he can help mentor whoever that might be. He can mentor them on the track because he's proven to be a Hall of Famer at that and I'll help mentor them with the sponsorship services that we like to see at MWR."
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