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Martin having time of his life in front of NASCAR's young guys

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) _ Mark Martin wasn't even supposed to be in Nextel Cup racing this season. He certainly seems out of place in the standings.

Back for another season with Roush Racing after some other unexpected changes, the 47-year-old Martin already has four top-10 finishes. He's second in the standings _ the only driver over 35 who's in the top 10.

``Well, it's a lot harder work when you get my age to get it done. But we're working real hard to get it done, and I'm having the time of my life,'' Martin said Friday. ``As of right now, this is the best it's ever been.''

Martin has been in NASCAR's top series since 1981. He has 35 victories and has finished second in the season standings four times.

He went into last season planning for that to be his last in the No. 6 Ford for owner Jack Roush, who he has driven for since 1988.

Jamie McMurray had already been signed by Roush last year as the intended replacement for Martin, but McMurray ended up replacing Kurt Busch instead.

Roush then persuaded Martin to stay another season, and the driver is glad he did.

``This the time of my life. I really never dreamed that it would be,'' Martin said. ``But I'm sure that in a couple of years down the road, I'll be able to look back at 2006 and say that was the good old days.''

With this week's stop at Texas Motor Speedway for the Samsung/RadioShack 500 on Sunday, Martin is at a track where he and the Roush team have had plenty of success.

Five Roush drivers have won in the 10 Cup races in Texas, former driver Jeff Burton (1997) and Martin (1998) winning the first two at the 1 1/2-mile track where there has never been a repeat winner. Martin has four top-five finishes in Texas, including second behind teammate Carl Edwards last November in the first fall race at Texas.

``That guy is a driving machine. He's unbelievable,'' said Kyle Busch, the 20-year-old who's fourth in the standings.

``For a guy who wants to slow down, Mark Martin hasn't lost his desire or his edge,'' said Jimmie Johnson, the points leader by 59 over Martin. ``He's winning and competing. He's really respected in our sport.''

On Friday, Martin qualified third with a lap at 189.029 mph. Kasey Kahne won the pole at 190.315 mph, and J.J. Yeley took the second spot.

Martin had two other races planned in Texas this weekend before the Cup race. He was in the IROC race on Friday night and was set to make his first Busch start this season in Saturday's O'Reilly 300 after qualifying fourth.

While there hasn't been a repeat Cup winner at Texas, Martin has won three of his five Busch races at the track (1997, 1999 and 2000).

Martin was initially reluctant about returning for another Cup season because he wasn't sure if he'd have the ``desire and drive'' needed to get through another competitive year.

``I didn't know if I was going to be able to find it, I swear I didn't,'' he said. ``I was really concerned that I wouldn't be able to find it, but I went out in Daytona and did my job.''

Martin led 19 laps and finished 12th at the season-opening Daytona 500. Martin then had four straight top 10s, finishing second in Atlanta, before being 13th last week at Martinsville.

``When I slip down in the seat of the 6 car, it feels like your favorite spot on the couch or the recliner, it's the right place for me,'' Martin said. ``We went to California and we had an awesome, awesome car and effort, and the momentum has just sort of built from there. Now, I'm in the middle of this thing.''

Regardless of what happens the rest of this season, Martin insists he will not extend his Cup career again. Busch driver Todd Kluever is scheduled to take over in the No. 6 for Martin next year.

Still, don't mention retirement to Martin. He'll still be driving.

Martin is in the process of completing a two-year contract to run full-time NASCAR Craftsman Truck schedules for Roush in 2007 and 2008. And he's not ready to rule out select races in other series.

``I hate crying wolf and never say never,'' Martin said. ``My primary racing is going to be the truck series for the championship.''

That's next year. For now, Martin can concentrate on chasing that elusive Cup championship as the topper to a career that includes 12 straight seasons in the top 10 (1989-00), another runner-up finish in 2002 and being fourth in each of the last two years.

``He's probably had more fun the last three or four or five years than he did the first couple of years I knew him,'' said teammate Matt Kenseth, third in points. ``Mark's awesome. He's one of the best in the garage, and if you can get him the right stuff, he's going to be hard to beat.''
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