Few competitors in Sunday’s STP Gas Treatment 500 have more Martinsville Speedway experience than Mark Martin.
Martin, who’ll take the controls of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in relief of injured Denny Hamlin, participated in his first race at the 0.526-mile short track in September 1981. A quick study, the then-22-year-old finished third behind NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant.
Sunday’s race will be Martin’s 49th at Martinsville, where he won in 1992 and 2000, both times behind the wheel of a Jack Roush-owned Ford. Martin sat out each of Martinsville’s 2012 races – as he was supposed to do this month, until Hamlin’s final-lap accident at Auto Club necessitated a replacement.
The now 54-year-old Arkansas native, however, has shown no signs of a slow-down in recent seasons. His most recent top 10 – among a total of 25 – came in the spring of 2011 when Martin ran his last points contending season for Hendrick Motorsports. Martin finished second in the track’s fall race in 2010. Another top-five finish would be No. 400 in Martin’s NASCAR national series career. He’s currently second on that all-time list.
Victory is always part of Martin’s game plan. He would have it no other way. Still, JGR would be ecstatic with any kind of top finish as it embarks on a cobbled-together driver lineup to keep the No. 11 Toyota among the top 10 in points pending Hamlin’s return to competition in May.
Hamlin might be a long shot to qualify for the Chase but JGR remains a top contender for a NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner’s championship.