This is what retirement is supposed to be like.
“This is so much fun,’’ Mark Martin said after his third-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
Well, the 53-year-old Martin never said he was retiring, just that he wouldn’t race a full schedule years ago when he first cut back.
Car owner Rick Hendrick talked him into returning full-time the past three seasons, but Martin is back to a part-time schedule and enjoying his new ride with Michael Waltrip Racing. It comes as changes in the past year there have made the organization more competitive and likely headed for Victory Lane with either Martin, Martin Truex Jr. or Clint Bowyer soon.
Martin enters this weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway 20th in points although he skipped Bristol and Martinsville. Still, he ranks ahead of 14 drivers who have competed in all seven races this season.
To get a better measure of Martin’s success, though, consider this: His average finish is 10.4 — better than every driver but points leader Greg Biffle (6.0 average finish), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (8.1), Martin Truex Jr. (8.2), Kevin Harvick (9.0) and Matt Kenseth (9.0).
Three top-10 finishes in five starts has helped Martin’s average finish. He’s also completed every lap in all five races he’s run.
“I am just so proud of MWR and all the people there and the teamwork that they have shown there starting with Martin Truex, Jr., who has put so much work into getting the program where it was when we started the season,’’ Martin said. “They really have a lot of great people there with great attitude, great teamwork.’’
It just makes him anxious for the next race.
“There's nothing else that I find quite as much fun as going to work with a great race team with a great attitude,’’ said Martin, a former Kansas Speedway winner. “So it's fun for me to go to every race that I get to go to.’’
Isn’t that what work — or retirement — is supposed to be? Fun.
SHOW ME THE MONEY With the series moving beyond Texas, it ends a significant period for teams. The richest part of the schedule is complete.
While sponsorship money is what drives teams, what they earn in races still matters.
The Daytona 500 is the sport’s richest paying race. Its purse this year was $19,142,601, which will be about $10 million more than any other race pays. The Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway typically is second, at around $9 million.
Other high-paying races early in the season include Texas ($7,132,592 payout this year) and Las Vegas ($6,382,683). The other races thus far with their payouts were: Phoenix ($5,040,864), Bristol, ($5,551,155), Fontana, Calif. ($5,847,881) and Martinsville ($5,009,303).
Last year, Daytona, along with the spring Texas and Las Vegas races, ranked among the top six races in money paid.
Thus, this is a period for teams — especially for small teams who rely more on winnings — to have some money to pay previous or upcoming bills. Since some small teams have little or no sponsorship, what they earn at the track is critical to their survival. It’s a reason why some teams start and park.
If a team made the least amount of money in each of the first seven races, it would have still collected $715,159. Understand that money is used to pay the driver, crew and other expenses from engines to tires to travel costs, so it can go fast, especially if a team is relying on winnings instead of sponsorship to defray costs.
The next race expected to pay out more than $6 million will be the Coca-Cola 600 at the end of May. There wasn’t a race last June that paid as much. With Indy and Daytona ($6,101,344 purse last year) in July, it makes that month a bountiful period for teams.
Last year’s 10-race Chase featured only one race that paid more than $6 million. That was Texas at $6,857,822. Two 2011 Chase races had purses of less than $5 million — Martinsville at $4,851,202 and Phoenix at $4,957,233.
DALE JR.’S ADVICE Dale Earnhardt Jr. recently said that he hoped Danica Patrick, who drives for his JR Motorsports team in the Nationwide Series, could keep from putting too much pressure on herself this season.
“That’s pretty darn good advice coming from Dale just because he’s obviously in a pressure situation,’’ Patrick said. “When I would come and do the races over the last couple of years, it wasn’t like there was no pressure but I was on such a learning curve that there was going to be good weekends, there was going to be bad weekends and at the end of the day it wasn’t for a sole championship as one driver. It was a little less pressure for sure.
“Now coming into this year, knowing that it’s for points and knowing that it’s really trying to take it to the next level, I do think that I probably put more pressure on myself. I think that’s great advice to relax. I’m running for the championship, so that pressure, I think, got to me a little bit. What matters is having a good time and having good races and you don’t do that by putting tons of pressure on myself.’’
PIT STOPS Hendrick Motorsports has gone 13 races without a Cup victory, its longest drought since a 15-race winless streak that stretched from the end of the 2002 season to the beginning of the 2003 campaign. ... NASCAR estimated the attendance at Sunday’s Camping World Truck race at Rockingham Speedway as 27,500. While that was an inaugural event — and likely to attract more fans — it was a larger estimate than 12 of the 25 truck races last year, including events at Charlotte, Iowa, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Homestead. ... With speeds nearing 215 mph at a recent Goodyear tire test at the repaved Michigan International Speedway, Matt Kenseth was asked if they were going too fast there. He said: “I don’t think we were going too fast as far as the cars being out of control or not having a good race or anything like that.’’
by Dustin Long
Follow Dustin on Twitter: @DustinLong