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Martin to drive full season for Hendrick in ’09

Times Staff Writer

Veteran driver Mark Martin, taking one more stab at his first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, said Friday he would drive a full season next year in the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports.

Martin, who has finished second in the championship standings four times in his 26-year career, will take over for Casey Mears, who last week was given his release after this season.

Martin, 49, will join three other drivers on Hendrick’s team, the all-star lineup of Jimmie Johnson, the reigning series champion; Jeff Gordon, a four-time title winner; and Dale Earnhardt Jr., NASCAR’s most popular driver.

“It was just an opportunity that I absolutely could not -- I just couldn’t let it pass by,” Martin said at a nationally televised news conference with team owner Rick Hendrick at Daytona International Speedway, site of the next race tonight.

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“This is a real special day for me,” Hendrick said. “We’re honored to have a guy of his caliber.”

Martin’s hiring was one of the worst-kept secrets in the NASCAR garage recently. But until Friday, it wasn’t clear whether he would drive all of the Cup series’ 36 races in 2009 or continue the part-time schedule he has had the last two seasons.

The Arkansas native this year is sharing driving duties in the No. 8 Chevrolet with rookie Aric Almirola, who will drive that car full-time next year for the team of Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Martin says the partial schedule has meant “two years of catching my breath” and was “very meaningful to my family and myself.”

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But it also “rekindled my passion for racing . . . and also given me a taste of what it would be like to not have [racing] in my life,” he said.

A fan favorite, Martin has won 35 races in his career, spent mostly with what is now Roush Fenway Racing. He also has remained competitive despite his partial schedule and, with Hendrick’s top-notch cars, is expected to be strong next year.

Despite driving in only 12 of the series’ 17 races so far this year, Martin has finished in the top 10 five times, including two top-five finishes.

And in 2007, he missed winning his first Daytona 500, the sport’s crown jewel race, when Kevin Harvick beat him by a nose at the finish line.

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james.peltz@latimes.com


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