Like a fine wine, Martin has gotten better with time

Martin hit a racing milestone at Bristol earlier this year

Mark Martin won his first NASCAR race in 1989 and made his 1,000th start at Bristol earlier this year. Martin entered the Chase as the points leader based on race victories during the season (photos courtesy: RacingOne/Tom Whitmore, Getty Images Sport)

This season, the oldest driver in NASCAR Sprint Cup Series racing happens to be one of the best. Entering the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship—to be crowned Nov. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway—Mark Martin had won more races than Tony Stewart and captured more pole-position starts than Jimmie Johnson.

Perhaps respected more than any other driver in the garage and with four career runner-up finishes in the Championship standings, Martin is the sentimental favorite to win his first Sprint Cup title in Miami following the Ford 400 on Nov. 22.

"I'm having the time of my life," said Martin.

The 50-year-old defies his age on the track. He may be an elder statesman, but that hasn't stopped the gray-haired veteran from mixing it up with the young guns of NASCAR. In fact, he led the Championship points standings the first third of this year’s Chase “playoffs” season and entered Chase Race 5 in second place in the Championship points standings.

Should he pull off the remarkable and unseat three-time reigning Champion Jimmie Johnson, Martin would become the oldest NASCAR Champion ever; the legendary Bobby Allison currently holds that distinction, at age 45.

U.S. Olympic swimmer and South Florida-resident Dara Torres as a 41-year-old mom became the oldest female swimmer in Olympic history in 2008 when she competed in her fifth Olympic Games. Torres, who won the first of her nine Olympic medals in 1984, capped a remarkable comeback by winning two silver medals on the final day of Olympic swimming at Beijing. This all came on the heels of a six-year retirement, as she bounced back from childbirth and overcame two surgeries to become the best American female sprinter—again.

NFL quarterback Brett Favre turned 40 earlier this month and is seeking to make NFL history this year. Should he stay healthy and his team continue winning, Favre will have the opportunity to break two NFL milestones: becoming the first 40 year-old quarterback to win a playoff game and the first 40 year-old quarterback to win a Super Bowl.

Forty is a very impressive age at which to compete in high-level sports: It indicates not only endurance and perseverance but also a tremendous talent that few athletes possess. So while 40 is impressive, 50 is almost unimaginable.

In the NBA, there are no current hoopsters aged 40 or older. Dikembe Mutombo was 42 when he played with the Houston Rockets, and Miami resident Alonzo Mourning lasted until he was 38.

In baseball and hockey, players tend to last longer than they do in other team sports. Indeed, 11 of the last 13 pitchers who reached 300 wins accomplished the feat at age 40 or later: Randy Johnson was 45, and Phil Niekro was 46 (and had more than 100 wins after turning 40). Barry Bonds, whatever his secret, actually had his best seasons after the age of 35, and Satchel Paige was throwing fastballs in spring training at age 60. National Hockey League great Gordie Howe played into his 50s, and longtime Blackhawk and Red Wing Chris Chelios still is having a hard time resisting the puck bug at age 47.

The only sport where competitors regularly see 40 is golf, but this is a game we “common folk” play as we age, too. Tom Watson was 59 and one putt away from winning the British Open earlier this year, while Phil Mickelson is 39 and has won the Tour Championship. So it’s clear that competing on the links into one’s fifth decade is light years away from racing at NASCAR’s top level.

Martin, in his first year driving for Hendrick Motorsports, earlier this fall at Dover made his 750th Cup start to earn the distinction as only the ninth driver in history to reach that mark. Prior to hitting 750, he had driven to 40 wins, and recorded 253 Top 5 finishes and 411 Top 10s.

At a time in life when most athletes have long settled into retirement, Martin is among the rare breed that not only actively participates but thrives.

“I think it has less to do with his age and more to do with the fact that he's really hungry,” said fellow-Sprint Cup Chase driver Brian Vickers. "If he had won four championships, would he still be able to do it at 50? I think desire has more to do with it than age."

Martin is physically fit, dedicated to healthy eating and lives a clean lifestyle. Two pieces of pizza are about as appetizing to him as a pair of DNFs in the 10-race Championship shootout, which culminates at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 22.

Martin almost retired for good in 2005, but this year came out of semi-retirement to join crew chief Alan Gustafson and the Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut. So four years after thinking it may be over, he's still here and on the verge of NASCAR immortality.

Will you be in Miami to see potential history happen…?

Just four races remain before the 2009 Sprint Cup Champion is crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway. The BEST seats are available NOW for the Nov. 20-22 Ford Championship Weekend, featuring the series-crowning Championship finales of all three of NASCAR’s top circuits: the Camping World Truck Series (Friday), Nationwide Series (Saturday) and Sprint Cup Series (Sunday). For Friday night’s Truck Championship, all kids 12 and under will be admitted FREE; on Saturday for the Nationwide Championship, all kids 12 and under are just $15; and for Sunday’s Sprint Cup Championship, adult tickets start at just $55. Click here to view great seats available for each race.

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