By JENNA FRYER
AP Auto Racing Writer
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin works out almost daily and scrutinizes everything he eats -- dedication that has the 50-year-old driver in top physical condition.
He knows that intense focus on personal health won't forever stave off the affects of aging. Eventually, his eyesight my fade or his coordination will drop just a tick.
For now, though, the veteran is at the top of his game and ready to make yet another run at that elusive NASCAR championship.
Only this time, he'll be in the very best equipment and surrounded by every resource imaginable. After two years of easing his way into retirement with limited Sprint Cup schedules, he was lured back to a full-time job by an open seat at elite Hendrick Motorsports.
It was an opportunity too good to refuse, perhaps the last-grasp chance to win the title that's escaped him over his remarkable 26-year career.
No one involved in the effort -- team owner Rick Hendrick, crew chief Alan Gustafson, or teammates Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- doubt Martin will be a legitimate championship contender this season.
"There's not a single time when Mark has gotten into one of our cars where I haven't said to myself 'Wow, this dude is crazy good. How has he not won 10 championships?"' Gustafson said. "This guy might be the best to ever do this, or at least one of the top five stock car drivers in history."
Never mind that Martin has five more years on Bobby Allison, the oldest driver to win a championship when he did it at 45 in 1983. Richard Petty was 42 when he won the last of his seven titles, Dale Earnhardt was 44.
And, since Dale Jarrett won the title at 42 in 1999, no driver over the age of 36 has claimed a Cup title.
But age is just a number to Martin. It's the desire that actually means something.
"Certain things diminish with age: your eyesight, the color of your hair, the amount of hair," Martin said. "One of the things that really happens when you get my age, to race car drivers, is it's very common for that burning fire and desire, it seems to diminish to a degree. That hasn't happened to me.
"I want this as bad as I did the day I got fired in 1983 or the day I went broke in 1982 or the first win I got in 1989. I want it as bad, at least as bad, as I ever have in my life and I'm willing to do whatever it takes."
Martin proved he's still at the top of his game in Sunday's qualifying for the season-opening Daytona 500. With the second-fastest lap of the day, he earned a front row starting spot for the biggest event of the year.
The significance is not lost on him. He's never won a Cup race at NASCAR's most famous track, and his only shot at a Daytona 500 victory ended in a 2007 photo-finish second-place to Kevin Harvick.
The defeat was heartbreaking, but he wasn't deterred. Martin knows his chances at a 500 title are winding down.
"I didn't let that eat at me a lot, but when it started dwindling down to where you could count on one hand your shots at the Daytona 500, and then it started going down -- four, three, we don't know anymore," Martin said.
"This is the crown jewel of stock car racing. Everything else that I've done in my career would fit around this. If things go our way, then maybe we'll have a chance again here Sunday."
Only 10 drivers have won a race over the age of 50, and none since Morgan Shepherd at Atlanta in 1993.
But those around Martin insist he's in a different category.
For starters, his fitness regimen rivals anyone in the garage: strength training four days a week, cardio on the other three. A recovering alcoholic, he's also compulsively careful about what he puts into his body.
His commitment has been contagious since he joined Hendrick last summer. His passion for healthy living has spurred Hendrick to hire a trainer, and Earnhardt and Gordon have both increased their physical activity.
"He eats like he should and he works out like a crazy man. He really takes care of his body," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "He might be 50, but he's got the body and mental attitude of a 35-year-old. There's guys in their 30s not in the shape he's in and not as dedicated and committed as he is."
Martin is also on of the most respected drivers in the garage. He's a clean racer who takes an interest in helping up-and-comers understand etiquette both on and off the track. Hendrick joked Martin should teach an annual course for rookies, but Gustafson said the lessons have been continuos and reach every corner of the garage.
"You look at the NFL and it's got these coaching trees, so-and-so was a coach and he had these assistants who went on to be coaches," Gustafson said. "Well, Mark Martin has a huge driving tree because I think he's influenced a lot of guys in a very positive way. And you see the respect he has from the Jeff Gordons, the Jimmie Johnsons, the guys he's raced against.
"That really says a lot, because those guys are hard on other drivers. They don't sit there and say 'That guy is good.' But everybody has a lot of respect for Mark because he's earned it. It's not token. He's been competing at the highest level his entire career. He's never had a down year."
Which is why it was so peculiar when he decided to retire after the 2005 season. Then owner Jack Roush couldn't find a replacement, and Martin was persuaded to stay another year.
He wanted to race more in 2007, but was worn down and interested only in a limited schedule. Roush couldn't offer that, so Martin brazenly walked away from his boss of 19 years for a partial schedule at Ginn Motorsports.
His new job called for him to race the first four events of the year, then take two weeks off. But he almost won the Daytona 500, then followed with two top-fives and a top-10.
When he climbed out of the car before Bristol five weeks into the season, he was leading the Cup standings.
After four runner-up finishes in the championship race, winning a title simply wasn't important anymore. It was all about learning how to recharge and relax, then figuring out what he wanted to do with himself.
He skipped 24 races the last two seasons, enough to recognize racing is still the cornerstone of his life. He'd gotten to that point before Hendrick came calling, and the partnership was a no-brainer for both Martin and the car owner.
"I just needed a break to catch my breath and sort of figure out what was important to me," he said. "Retirement means one of two things: getting to do something you've wanted to do all your life, or sitting around bored and letting life wither you away.
"I don't want to sit around and shrivel up."