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Mark Martin’s career year brings back memories of ‘Handsome Harry’ Gant

   The win list for drivers in Mark Martin’s age bracket is a short one. Only four drivers over the age of 50 have won a NASCAR Sprint Cup race: Martin, Harry Gant, Bobby Allison and Morgan Shepherd.
   This season Martin joined Gant as the only over-50 drivers to win multiple races. Gant won eight after his 50th birthday, including five in 1991 as a 51-year-old.

   But Martin says he doesn’t feel like a 50-year-old, at least not while he is in a race car.      “That adrenaline is something, there’s nothing like it,” Martin said after his recent win at Chicago.    “When I’m pumped up, driving fast racecars, I certainly don’t feel 50. But I do on Monday mornings.”
   Martin’s season, his first with Hendrick Motorsports, is the definition of a rebirth. Prior to 2009, he had run two partial, winless seasons in 2007 and 2008. His last win came in 2005. The last time he won this many races in a season was back in 1998, when he visited victory lane a career-high seven times.
   That 1998 season, he finished second in the series standings, 363 points behind Jeff Gordon. It was the third time Martin finished runner-up in the points standings. Already, 2009 is arguably a top-five season in Martin’s 27-year career. It’s the fourth time he has won at least four races in a season.
   It’s interesting that in a profession where age is the enemy, and typically once a driver passes his 40th birthday, the wins, slowly but steadily, begin to come farther and farther apart. Both Martin and Gant have achieved their greatest success and recognition after passing, not their 40th birthdays, but the half-century mark.
   One of the most popular drivers ever to compete in the then Winston Cup Series, Harry Gant started his career racing on the short tracks near his home in Taylorsville, N.C.
   Gant made his Winston Cup debut in 1973, driving for Richmond, Va., car owner Junie Donlavey. Through the years, Donlavey has probably given more young-up-and-coming drivers their first big break than any other car owner on the circuit. Gant would go on to drive for a variety of teams in the 1970s, but didn’t notch his first win until April 1982 at Martinsville, Va. He won again that season at Charlotte.
   His consistency earned him a second place finish in the 1984 points race. And he won the made-for-TV International Race of Champions series in 1985. Along the way, he appeared in a couple Burt Reynolds movies, which, along with his good looks, earned him the nickname “Handsome Harry.”
   He would go on to greater accolades that would earn him another nickname later in his career. After signing to drive for team owner Leo Jackson, Gant won one race each season in 1989 and 1990. Then in the fall of the 1991 season, at age 51, Harry Gant went on an amazing tear. Gant won four straight Winston Cup races, earning him the nickname “Mr. September.”
   Harry Gant’s last win in the Winston Cup series was on August 16, 1992, at Michigan International Speedway. The Michigan win at age 52 made him NASCAR’s oldest winner to date. Gant retired from the Winston Cup Circuit in 1994, although he filled in for an injured Bill Elliott at a race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in 1996.
   With all the success Mark Martin is enjoying following in the footsteps of Harry Gant, it is worth noting that though he is fighting for a spot in this year’s “Chase for the Championship,” take a look at what the standings would look like if “The Chase” began today. Winning is everything. Once the Chase starts, the top 12 drivers will have their points reset to 5,000. An additional 10 bonus points will be added to that total for each win in the first 26 races.
  Mark Martin would launch up the standings, leap frogging 10 other drivers, to take the top seed. Currently in 11th place and fighting to hold on to a Chase spot, Martin’s four wins would give him 40 bonus points.

 

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