BROOKLYN, Michigan (AP) - Mark Martin's eyes came alive and a wide grin appeared on his face when he pondered the changes he's seen since he ran
NASCAR's championship series for the first time in 1981. One moment, the 45-year-old driver longed for the good old days when he could show up at the
track, work on his car, race and leave.
Then he groaned about the obligations he now has - to the media, fans, sponsors and a grueling schedule - because NASCAR has burst beyond its southern
roots and become a big-time sport across the United States. But before Martin sounded like he was complaining, he acknowledged that the drawbacks are
balanced by riches. Martin has made enough money - about $37 million in career earnings - to live in an airport community in Daytona Beach, Florida,
where his airplane is parked just a short golf cart trip away. He can fly the plane himself or have his pilot whisk him away to a race or sponsor
function at any time.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of racing during what I call the simple times and also at the tail end of the huge economic growth of the sport,"
said Martin, leaning against a trailer before his first of two races last weekend at Michigan International Speedway. "That's why I ride the fence on
what I think about the many changes.
"During the simple times, we weren't making as much money, but there wasn't as much of a demand on our time. But if my whole career was like that, I
wouldn't have retired with very much."
Martin, whose 533 consecutive starts trail just two active drivers, is proud to say he's not just sticking around to pick up lucrative checks with
lackluster performances. He finished second last week at MIS, Martin's third top three this month. He's one of 11 drivers with a victory this year,
and he has five top fives and 10 top 10s in 23 races. After a strong showing in 2002 - his fourth series runner-up finish - he slipped last year with
no victories and just five top fives in 36 starts and trailed 16 drivers in points.
"I had a bad year in 2003, and I was afraid it would look like I was just hanging around," Martin said. "I didn't get much sleep for a long, long
time. It is very important to me to be at least a top 10 contender, all the time."
Martin is 12th among NASCAR point leaders this year with 2,759, just behind Jeremy Mayfield (2,786), Kasey Kahne (2,792) and Bobby Labonte (2,799).
For the first time, NASCAR will have a championship playoff, with the top 10 drivers in the standings competing over the last 10 events for the title.
The field will be set after the race on Sept. 11 in Richmond, leaving drivers just three races to secure a spot.
So what does Martin think of the major change?
"As a competitor, I don't like it," he said. "It will be a winner in the TV ratings and with fan interest because there's going to be some new drama
and excitement, but I personally liked it the way it was.
"TV ratings aren't a major concern of mine, but they are for NASCAR. When I'm a fan, it might be different, but I'm not done being a competitor."
Martin, who is under contract for 2005, insisted he does not have a retirement plan.
"He's a compulsive competitor," said Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing, which has had Martin on its team for 16 years.
Jeff Burton, a former Roush teammate, said obsessive is the best description.
"I don't care if it's racing or weightlifting, he's obsessed with being the best," Burton said.
After Martin's first race 23 years ago, he struggled to find a home in NASCAR's top stock car series, racing only sporadically and failing to
establish himself in the sport until he was hired in 1988 by Jack Roush.
He is now a mainstay.
His 34 victories trail just three active drivers, and he ranks 17th in NASCAR history. He ended a 72-race winless streak this summer at Dover.
Martin's 12-year-old son, Matt, is following his father's career path. Racing an F-150 truck, the boy led every lap in a FastKids race last weekend.
"I don't get to see him race much, and that's another downside to my schedule," Martin said. "I don't care what he does. I just want him to be the
best at whatever he does, whether he goes to college or goes into racing.
"I only want him to keep racing if he's enjoying it because that's what I plan to do, too."