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The cool old dude is having a senior moment as he whips his iPhone from a belt clip and squints at its menu of Chiclets-sized apps. Mark Martin slips on his reading glasses. He continues flipping through his music downloads of such very un--Baby Boomer artists as rappers Eminem and Gucci Mane. "The really, really good stuff," he says as his wife of 25 years, Arlene, shakes her head. In her understated style she says, "He does like all types of music; I'll say that for him. But rap, now when he listens to that, we kind of have a problem."
The 50-year-old Martin smiles and adds, "I like it loud," before noticing a mellower entry on his playlist: Al Green. "He's the only love-song guy in the world that I'll listen to," says Martin, as his corrugated, 5'6", 130-pound frame—about the size, weight and body fat of a boxful of lug nuts—sinks into the couch cushions. On a plateau above Batesville, Ark., where a billboard reads HOME OF NASCAR GREAT MARK MARTIN, the object of that Ozark pride was seated last week in his spotless office suite—not a stray paperclip on the desk or tattered magazine on the coffee table—inside an airplane hangar with a shimmering concrete floor that looks as if a cat has licked it clean.
"I'm obsessive compulsive—absolutely," he concedes. "It's a challenge." Martin packs for a two-day trip 48 hours in advance. He turns down his bed at night at least an hour early because, as he explains emphatically in a flustered Southern cadence with echoes of Barney Fife, "I don't want to have to turn the darn thing down to get in it. When I'm ready to go, I like to hit it." He doesn't employ a trainer for his oft-cited fitness regimen due to one simple fact: "If I have a trainer, I have a schedule," he says. "What if I wake up at 6 a.m. and want to work out but the session isn't until 7 a.m.?" He refuses to install trendy landscape lighting to illuminate the palms at his home in Daytona Beach, because he had it once—and once was enough. "I came home from a race at 2:30 a.m. and I saw a bulb burned out," he recalls. "So I went out there in the garage, got a bulb and changed it at 3 a.m. I don't like things not to work. I don't like things that break. It drives me crazy if it does."
But tires blow, engines fail and fenders bend all the time in a NASCAR race. What kind of control freak would choose a profession of high-speed unpredictability for 27 years? And yet Martin, the Mick Jagger of NASCAR—the oldest series driver still rockin' on the asphalt stage, he has three victories this season and was 11th in the points standings after Sunday's Toyota/Savemart 350 in Sonoma, Calif.—has not only managed the chaos with remarkable success, but for the first time in his career, he is enjoying it too.
He remains uncomfortable with unbridled jubilation—he is conditioned to steel himself against disappointment, hard-wired to reserve emotion—but there is a bubble to Mark Martin these days. And it's not gas. He is still the embraceable crank, telling you, "I'm not fun," even if he is, but the stress of expectations that had freighted Martin as the best driver never to win a Cup championship, the career ambivalence he experienced as he grieved his father's death in 1998 without missing a race, and the acute misery as racing became a grind from 2003 through '06 has vanished. "I'm done with the negativity," he promises. He found a fresh perspective while driving only part-time in 2007 and '08. "You just exhale at first," he says, "but by '08, the weekend would roll around and it was like, O.K., what do I love to do? Well, I kind of like racin'—if it's a fast car. If it's not, racin' stinks."
Rick Hendrick delivered sweet nectar in a Chevy. As the owner of NASCAR's dynastic Hendrick Motorsports, he offered Martin a chance to drive the number 5 car on a dream team with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. There was one catch: Martin had to drive full-time. He had promised Arlene he wouldn't return to the angst that had made him sour company for the past decade. But after much discussion, she consented. A few weeks ago Martin came home from a day at the shop, and Arlene teased him, saying, "Look at you, you're always smiling." Martin had never before experienced driving as a joyride.
Mark was a three-year-old sitting on his father's lap when the charismatic but volatile Julian Martin ordered his son, "Take the wheel or we'll wreck," as they were speeding along a dirt road. That's how Mark learned to drive: white-knuckled. He developed into an expert at handling fear, becoming a teen sensation on the American Speed Association series in the late-1970s. By 1981, Martin had debuted as a NASCAR owner-driver. By '83, he was winless and broke, forced to face what he describes as failure and humiliation when he auctioned off his last hand tool to pay his debts. "Everything I'd driven, I'd won," he recalls. "I thought I was pretty hot. I didn't think I was so hot after I tumbled. And never have since. And still don't today."
Martin's self-protective reflex is to remain relentlessly self-critical about his work—a da Vinci in a fire suit wondering if he got Mona Lisa's smile just right—even when he drives a race universally lauded. He won at Michigan on June 14 after Johnson and Greg Biffle, racing just ahead of him, ran out of gas on the final laps. Martin was also running dry, but with a smart fuel-conserving approach, he had enough fumes to coast across the line to victory. A display of wits, by all accounts. "Think I knew I was going to run out 500 feet before the start-finish line?" he counters. "I could say that. I had no idea." No one else at Hendrick Motorsports would think of dismissing Martin's guile. "He absolutely won that race," says Gordon. "It's so typical of Mark. We all know he's not the most optimistic guy in the world. But it doesn't slow him down." Heat doesn't get under his weathered skin, either. Halfway through the race at Michigan, Martin shut off the cooling system for his suit because of battery trouble. "I've seen guys get out of the car after that and you'd have to wring them out," Hendrick says. "Mark could've run another race. Look around at all the sports. How many guys his age can compete with the best and youngest? He is a phenomenon."
Fitness is Martin's anti-aging method. In 21 years of training, he has never missed a workout day. Holidays? "No, that's ridiculous," he says. Aching days? "Tough stuff," he snaps. His 6% body fat is the product of daily 90-minute workouts, plus a diet only a touch more appetizing than Little Miss Muffet's curds and whey: strictly whole grain and low fat. He can count splurges on one hand. In the past year he has eaten fried food once (a few bites of crispy calamari as a treat); and the night after winning at Michigan, he ate a sliver of pound cake ("Couldn't resist, but I felt it the next day," he says). This health kick is not so much an obsession as it is an alternative to another addiction. "It's better than alcohol," Martin says. "I did that."
There is no one Martin has revered more than his father—"my superhero," he says—but he also understood Julian Martin's flaws. Mark witnessed how alcohol exaggerated his father's naturally hot temper. Julian would pull a phone out of the wall—or rip a watch off his wrist—and smash it with a hammer. Mark thirsted for self-control. He stopped drinking 20 years ago. "I said I would never be like my dad, and I was well on my way," he recalls. Discipline over mind and body is Martin's gift. But steer the conversation to the obvious—old man Martin is outworking all those young guns with soft buns—and Martin grabs the wheel. "I refuse to go where you're trying to take it—that I'm kicking everyone's ass because of my [fitness]," says Martin, who also obsesses over every pre- and postrace detail. "Here's my point: The fact that I am willing to commit to the workouts just might mean I'm willing to do other things that someone else might not too."