The notion of retirement has shadowed Mark Martin for nearly a decade now, ever since he began the process of separating himself from a Jack Roush car that had become as much a part of his identity as his brushy gray hair. Almost every year since has brought questions of whether he'd be back the next season, and yet here he is, now at 52, still racing for one of the best organizations in NASCAR and still doing it at a very high level.

And now, facing that question again. This is the final year of Martin's contract with Hendrick Motorsports, and young buck Kasey Kahne awaits to take over the No. 5 car for the 2012 campaign and beyond. For a driver who's won 40 races and been a part of NASCAR as long as most can remember, next season brings with it only one certainty. "I'm absolutely without a doubt going to be driving a race car next year," Martin said, "I'm just not going to be in any hurry to worry about that."

What level, what type of vehicle -- all that remains to be hashed out. Given how late sponsorship packages are coming together in this post-recession economy, Martin doesn't expect conversations about 2012 to begin until sometime this summer, and doesn't foresee anything being firmed up until the fall. Not that he's all that concerned about it right now, anyway. "I'm just thrilled with what's at hand and what's in front of me," he said.

What's in front of him is his final ride in the No. 5 car, a vehicle that re-established him as a race winner and a championship contender at an age when many drivers are content to just ride around in circles and cash a check. And it comes with new challenges, given that Martin surprisingly went winless last season, and failed to make the Chase one year after pushing now five-time champion Jimmie Johnson to the final race. He'll also try to right the ship with a new face atop his pit box -- Alan Gustafson was shifted to Jeff Gordon's No. 24 car in a winter personnel shuffle at Hendrick that paired Martin with Lance McGrew.

The change in and of itself seems reinvigorating enough. "The unknown pushes you to be more engaged, and you push yourself more and do more. That's certainly where I think we are right now," said Martin, who last won at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009. "The excitement and enthusiasm in the 5 team is something that I think rivals the excitement and enthusiasm the 5 team had two years ago. You can't sustain that. We had it last year, but it wasn't the same as it was the first time. We have that again, and that's worth something. It's not everything, but it's worth something."

Competitor that he is, it's clear that Martin wants to return to form, wants to win races and stick his nose back in that championship fight and make himself a factor in his final season with the most successful organization of NASCAR's modern era. But good luck pinning him down to specifics. More modest than his body of work might attest, he's not the type to make any grand pronouncements about one last run at a Cup title or a Daytona 500, the two great prizes that have somehow avoided him, and yet whose absence he refuses to allow to define his career.

No, ask Mark Martin what he really wants out of this season, not his last in NASCAR but perhaps his last with the kind of vehicle and organization capable of greatness, and you get an answer that's less about him than it is the people who surround him.

"What comes to mind is, I want to contribute. That's what I said when I came here, I want to make a contribution to Hendrick Motorsports, and I want to make them glad that I was here," Martin said. "I really would like to be able to help Lance achieve the results and the recognition that he's so capable of. That's kind of how I felt when I started. I was a huge fan of Alan's, and just wanted to help him get the recognition that I felt like he was capable of and deserved. Those are things that are more important. I'm not so selfish. This sport has been my life, you know? It's been so good to me. I'm not so selfish. I don't think about me. I like to see people succeed. And if we do that with Lance, I'm going to get mine, too. I'm going to get my success as well."

McGrew and Martin have worked together once before, winning a Nationwide race at Las Vegas in 2007. That car was owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whom McGrew was most recently paired with on the Cup level. In a season and a half together, Earnhardt and McGrew managed four top-five finishes and never visited Victory Lane. The entire Hendrick program was down last year, something evident in the fact that Johnson was the team's only driver to win. To the fans of NASCAR's most popular driver, though, that fact was often immaterial. Martin knows his new crew chief took plenty of heat.

"Lance was beat up, certainly," Martin said. "We at Hendrick have not managed to get Junior in the right combination of stuff. It's really unfortunate. And a lot of people have gotten blamed. Crew chiefs have gotten blamed for that, and it's the whole organization's failure. It's not Lance's failure. It wasn't Tony Eury Jr.'s failure. You have that in the sport, and it's been unfortunate. ... Same thing with Alan. Alan had been through a tough year with Casey Mears, and when he was with Kyle [Busch], Kyle got a lot of the credit when it went good. When we did it, Alan got a lot of the credit because it was being done with an old man who we didn't think was going to be able to achieve those kinds of things again."

Achieving those kinds of things this year will entail rebuilding a No. 5 program that bottomed out last year. The cars weren't as fast as they had been, and in their effort to rectify the problem, Martin and Gustafson got away from what had worked. They didn't just miss the Chase, they weren't even in the conversation. "We went from not as fast as we wanted to be to eventually right near junk," Martin remembered. "A lot of times you have to hit bottom before you can rebound."

The low point was the fall New Hampshire race, the anniversary of Martin's most recent victory, when they ran two laps behind the leader and finished 29th. It marked the fifth consecutive race where Martin had run 20th or worse, and it was followed by a 90-minute meeting where driver and crew chief aired everything out looking for answers.

"I've run worse, but not run worse with that caliber of driver," Gustafson remembered. "One of the hardest conversations Mark and I ever had was when we were at our low point. That was as candid a conversation as we had. The nice thing is, we're both committed to each other, then and we still are. But we had to sit there and evaluate what we were doing wrong, and that isn't easy. We had a great conversation, and it was after Loudon. It was a hard conversation, one of the most rewarding."

They altered approach, they formulated a plan -- and they got better, to the point where Martin was in the mix for race wins down the stretch at California, Martinsville, and Texas. "With nine races left, it's really easy to call it in, right? Call off the dogs, lay down, point fingers and point the blame," Gustafson said. "Collectively as a group, we said no. We're not going any lower. And we turned it around. If we wouldn't have that around, I'd be sitting here right now lacking some confidence and not knowing where to go. But I feel like we did turn it around, and it gave us some great direction."

"We came full circle," Martin added. "We got back."

Clearly, that's something he takes pride in, the fact that he fought to salvage something out of a lost season rather than allow it to completely skid off into the dirt. It wasn't enough to get them back into the win column, it was under-the-radar enough that not many noticed it, but the improvement was there, tangible in the results. It will take a few races, five or six Martin believes, to see whether the strides he made at the end of last year with Gustafson continue into 2011 with McGrew. But clearly, the prospects energize him. Mark Martin sounds like a driver who's beginning his first season at Hendrick, not entering his last. Whatever he's going to do next year, it can wait.

"I'll worry about 2012 a lot later on," he said. "Right now, I've got the fun stuff right in front of me."

 

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.