BRISTOL, Tenn.—Mark Martin hasn’t raced at Bristol since 2011.
That means Martin hasn’t raced at Bristol since the grinding of the top lane of the .533-mile short track, which took place after the spring race of 2012.
That means that Martin hasn’t raced at Bristol since the outside lane became the preferred way around Thunder Valley, as drivers discovered that, once rubbered-in, the top groove was faster.
Accordingly, Martin had a lot to learn for his first stint in relief of injured Tony Stewart — and very little time to learn it. Because Bristol is a two-day show for Cup teams, the schedule includes two practices on Friday followed by qualifying, with no more practice between time trials and the Irwin Tools Night Race on Saturday.
“I’m a little bit nervous about today,” Martin said before Friday’s first practice, “because I feel like it is an extraordinary challenge, because it’ s not like. … I’ve switched around a lot, but usually you have a couple of months and a test or two to get together.
“Man, I see a lot of faces I’m not sure I can put names to just yet. This is going to be an action-packed two-and-a-half hours or whatever today.”
Martin wasn’t kidding. He subsequently ran 116 practice laps in the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet, most among Cup drivers in the opening two-hour session. Only five other drivers completed 100 circuits or more. Though Martin was 22nd fastest, his goal for the 12 races he’ll run in Stewart’s remains clear.
“I’m excited about the challenge,” Martin said, “and I’m extremely committed to do a good job for this race team, for this group, for Tony — and hopefully return his car back over to him in as good or better standing than when it was turned over to me.”