BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) -- Mark Martin's eyes came alive and a wide grin appeared on his face when he
BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) -- Mark Martin's eyes came alive and a wide grin appeared on his face when he pondered the changes he's seen since he ran NASCAR's championship series for the first time in 1981.
One moment, the 45-year-old driver longed for the good old days when he could show up at the track, work on his car, race and leave.
Then he groaned about the obligations he now has -- to the media, fans, sponsors and a grueling schedule -- because NASCAR has burst beyond its southern roots and become a big-time sport across the country.
But before Martin sounded like he was complaining, he acknowledged that the drawbacks are balanced by riches.
Martin has made enough money -- about $37 million in career earnings -- to live in an airport community in Daytona Beach, Fla., where his airplane is parked just a short golf cart trip away. He can fly the plane himself or have his pilot whisk him away to a race or sponsor function at any time.
"I've been fortunate to be a part of racing during what I call the simple times and also at the tail end of the huge economic growth of the sport," Martin said. "That's why I ride the fence on what I think about the many changes.
"During the simple times, we weren't making as much money, but there wasn't as much of a demand on our time. But if my whole career was like that, I wouldn't have retired with very much."
Martin, whose 533 consecutive starts trail just two active drivers, is proud to say he's not just sticking around to pick up lucrative checks with lackluster performances.
He finished second last week, Martin's third top three this month. He's one of 11 drivers with a victory this year, and he has five top fives and 10 top 10s in 23 races.
After a strong showing in 2002 -- his fourth series runner-up finish -- he slipped last year with no victories and just five top fives in 36 starts and trailed 16 drivers in points.
"I had a bad year in 2003, and I was afraid it would look like I was just hanging around," Martin said. "I didn't get much sleep for a long, long time. It is very important to me to be at least a top 10 contender, all the time."
Martin is 12th among NASCAR point leaders this year with 2,759, just behind Jeremy Mayfield (2,786), Kasey Kahne (2,792) and Bobby Labonte (2,799).
Martin, who is under contract for 2005, insisted he does not have a retirement plan.
He's so hungry to compete that he finished second last weekend in his first Busch series race in four years. Martin, who leads the series with 45 career victories, plans to return to Busch racing on Sept. 10 at Richmond.
"He's a compulsive competitor," said Geoff Smith, president of Roush Racing, which has had Martin on its team for 16 years.
Jeff Burton, a former Roush teammate, said obsessive is the best description.
"I don't care if it's racing or weightlifting, he's obsessed with being the best," Burton said.
After Martin's first Cup race 23 years ago, he struggled to find a home in NASCAR's top stock car series, racing only sporadically and failing to establish himself in the sport until he was hired in 1988 by Jack Roush.
He is now a mainstay.
His 34 victories trail just three active drivers, and he ranks 17th in NASCAR history. He ended a 72-race winless streak this summer at Dover.