Mark Martin eyes first win at Daytona 500

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Mark Martin's long career as a NASCAR driver can be broken down into two categories.

Everything he has accomplished ... and the two big prizes that have eluded him.

Martin has won 40 Sprint Cup races in 27 years. He has also won a Nationwide Series-record 48 races and six Camping World Truck Series races in 14 starts in 2006. At 50, he became the third-oldest driver to win a Cup race last year at Phoenix.

Then there's the flip side. Martin has never won a Sprint Cup championship, finishing second a record five times, including 2009. And he has never won in 49 starts at Daytona International Speedway, including 25 Daytona 500s.

But Martin won the pole for the first time for Sunday's Daytona 500, making him, at 51, the oldest to start the race from that spot. A victory would not only make him the oldest to win the Great American Race, but it could jump-start Martin to another run toward a championship.

"I wanted to be the youngest to win the Daytona 500," said Martin, who ran his first Daytona 500 in 1987, "and I didn't manage to set that record. I'll take what I can get.

"This is a good time to get 'er done. I'm going into it with enthusiasm and excitement knowing that I have a race team that can do it. I never had the fastest car for the Daytona 500, and it's a shame because back in the day, the fastest car usually had a great shot at winning."

Martin will be joined in the first row by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. Last year Martin, in his first year with Hendrick, started in the second spot and finished 16th .

"This is something that I've stood and watched for, I don't know, 26 years or so, with envy of the guys who sit on the front row," Martin said. "Last year was my first experience to do that with (crew chief) Alan Gustafson in the 5 car."

Martin, who returned to a full-time schedule last year after running part-time schedules during 2007-08, revived his career under Gustafson's direction. He ended up winning five races and began the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the leader before Jimmie Johnson eventually overtook him.

"A year ago right now, I didn't know how we might perform," Martin said. "We might have failed miserably; I didn't know. Now, we know what we can do. So in a lot of ways there's a lot less pressure and anxiety. I was surprising myself. So we have higher expectations, or at least I do, this year."

Martin's best finish in the Daytona 500 was second in 2007 when Kevin Harvick beat him by 0.20 second, the ninth-closest margin of victory in NASCAR history. That was his first year after leaving Roush Racing when he decided to drive a partial schedule for Ginn Racing and then Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Coming out of his two-year semi retirement and teaming with Hendrick has given Martin the opportunity of a lifetime.

And what would it mean to finally win a Daytona 500 after all this time?

"Have you seen that trophy?" Martin asked. "It would definitely be the biggest trophy I have. I have a lot of them, but I don't have anything like that. Certainly, the crown jewel of stock-car-racing ... that would be a big trophy."