AVONDALE, Ariz. (AP) — 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.