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One of the drivers who most changed over the years was Mark Martin.

When I first met Martin, he was wound tight as a spring. I learned that the best times to talk to Martin were when times were bad. When he won a race, he sort of “humbled out.” I’m not sure I can count the times he said his favorite homily, “In order to finish first, first one must finish.”

I always admired his work ethic. I just had a hard time figuring out how to write about it. Once I wrote a column in which I wrote Martin didn’t really understand the word “fun” the way most people did. To him, fun was winning, and it was mainly joyless.

Shortly after, Martin’s longtime crew chief and friend, Jimmy Fennig, became angry at me in the garage, telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Many years later, I told the story to Martin, who smiled and said, “Don’t hold it against Jimmy. He don’t know what fun is, either.”

Late in his career, Martin discovered what fun was. It’s most of the reason why he had such a hard time retiring. Rather than dreading the prospect of writing about a Martin win, I looked forward to it.

From time to time, he and I would chat for a while. The one I remember most was sitting in the grassy hill behind pit road at Dover during qualifying. I think Martin was the only driver I ever knew who had a genuine curiosity about what it was like to be a writer.

Both of us lost our fathers. Julian Martin died in a plane crash in 1998. My father and Martin’s father were both “characters.” He laughed at stories about mine, and I laughed at stories about his.

In terms of pure determination, Martin reminds me most of Bobby Allison. There’s country term that describes both: “tough as a lyter (or ‘lighter’ or ‘lighter’d) knot.” It’s a hard, tough knot in a pine tree that’s perilous for an unwary lumberjack to cut.