DAYTONA, Fla. – Mark Martin can taste the blood. His words, not mine.
On any other day, Martin Truex Jr. winning the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500 would be the story. Truex is the anchor of a struggling team (Earnhardt Ganassi Racing) that's a result of a necessary merger just to stay alive.
But up against a 50-year-old who's coming out of part-time retirement, Truex loses out to the other Martin.
For the first time in his 26-year career, Martin will start on the front row in a Daytona 500, a race he's never won, but the one he wants the most.
Martin's old attitude about hating this place, Daytona International Speedway, is gone, replaced by a burning desire to win what he describes as "the crown jewel of stock car racing."
Of course he almost did win it a few years ago, losing out by a fender to Kevin Harvick in 2007. That one, Martin says, doesn't eat at him because he was just happy to have a ride in that race. This time around, however, he can sense it. Victory is a real possibility, and he desperately wants a 500 win under his belt.
"I didn't let that eat at me a lot," Martin said, talking about the fact that his résumé doesn't include a Daytona 500 win, "but when it started dwindling down to one hand, your shots at the Daytona 500, then four, then three, then we don't know anymore … "
He couldn't quite put it into words, but really what he means is that his time is running out, and this is his best shot ever.
Mark Martin earned his first front-row spot at the Daytona 500.
Mark Martin at the Daytona 500 since '00
When he took a break from full-time racing following the 2006 season, it came as somewhat of a head scratcher. Martin was still very competitive, finishing ninth in the Chase after back-to-back fourth-place finishes.
The sabbatical, as it turned out to be, was more about recharging the batteries than retirement. From the time he graduated from high school in 1977 through that '06 season, he'd devoted himself to racing. After 30 years, he was done. Or needed a break anyway.
"I had to let myself out from under the gun," he said Sunday.
"Everybody goes through experiences in life. It is really, really critical to be really happy with what you're doing – in the way you see things, perceive things, the way you feel about life. It's the best it's ever been for me."
That's true off the track as well as on.
Martin says he's never had the quality of equipment he has now, which is a bold statement considering he drove for Jack Roush for 19 years.
He couldn't pass up driving a Hendrick Motorsports car. And now that he's got that opportunity, he doesn't want to let it slip away. This, he thinks, may just be the best chance of winning the Daytona 500.
"I'm trying not to get too far ahead of myself," he said. "Put me in position with 20 laps to go in 2007, I was willing that race. I could taste it. I was willing to wreck to win.
"I'm very motivated. Probably more than I was in 2000, 2005, because I know – five, four … Every time I get a chance to do this Daytona 500, I don't know how many more I'll get."