Those who doubt Mark Martin do so at their own peril.
He has rebuffed the scoffers so many times that most now would automatically assume he would win if he wound up on “American Idol” or “Dancing With The Stars”.
The fact that he's now 51 years old is entirely beside the point.
It's possible to look at Martin's record six races into the season and wonder if he's still Chase material. He's 17th in points, after all, and most of the drivers in front of him are quality producers with strong teams. And Martin's March was less than thrilling, with finishes of 33rd (Atlanta), 35th (Bristol) and 21st (Martinsville).
A Daytona 500 pole win and fourth-place runs at California and Las Vegas seem in the distant past.
It should be remembered, however, that at this point last year folks were wondering about Martin. Indeed, some were overlooking him entirely. His career seemed to be in decline, and he was, well, getting older. He won a race in 2005, but was winless in 2006 and also scoreless in abbreviated seasons in '07 and '08.
As he returned to full-time racing with Hendrick Motorsports in '09, there was reason to doubt that he could still push the button.
But you don't doubt Mark Martin.
Eight races into the season, he broke his long winless string - at Phoenix International Raceway, site of Saturday's Subway Fresh Fit 600, and he would go on to win four more times - at Darlington, Michigan, Chicago and New Hampshire - and finish second in the championship chase.
In many ways, it was the most remarkable season of Martin's three-decade run in NASCAR competition.
Almost a year after his “return” win at Phoenix, Martin is back at a track where he has been a leader since the Cup series began racing at the one-mile facility in 1988.
Martin owns the track record for most top-five (11) and top-10 (17) finishes and has an average finish of 8.8 (one of only three active drivers with an average of 10th or better) at PIR. Perhaps most notably, he is the only driver not named Jimmie Johnson to own a victory at Phoenix since the spring of 2007.
Saturday's race will begin a spring run at tracks at which Martin typically excels. With the exception of Talladega Superspeedway (Martin doesn't enjoy restrictor-plate racing), Phoenix, Texas, Richmond, Darlington and Dover look good on the Martin docket.
By the end of that stretch, chances are he'll have a win and be knocking on the door of the Chase.
Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEEDtv.com and has been covering motorsports for 28 years. He has written several books on NASCAR, including "NASCAR: The Definitive History of America's Sport" and "Then Tony Said To Junior: The Best NASCAR Stories Ever Told". He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.
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