Danny Peters · Tuesday April 5, 2011
“Beyond the stat itself or the records or whatever, it’s the experiences of it all that are the most important to me.” Mark Martin
When I started working in NASCAR back in September 2005 on Sprint’s title sponsorship of the Cup Series, my very first project was a retirement print ad campaign focused on the two storied drivers hanging up their helmets at the end of the season. The first was Rusty Wallace; the second was Mark Martin. While Wallace, the 1989 series champion and winner of 55 races did indeed retire and move into a role in the broadcasting booth, as well as ownership of a Nationwide team, Martin carried on. And on. And on. And on.
Some six full seasons later, Martin is still running and this past weekend at the historic and beautiful Martinsville Speedway, the ageless wonder made his 800th career start at the top echelon. Only seven other drivers who have eclipsed the 800-start barrier: Richard Petty (1,185), Ricky Rudd (906), Dave Marcis (883), Terry Labonte (870), Kyle Petty (829), Bill Elliott (825), and Darrell Waltrip (809).
“I hate to say this isn’t a big deal, because it is.” Said Martin, prior to the race. “But, to me, the bigger deal is what you accomplished in those starts, not just the starts themselves….I’ve had a really good 799 starts. We’ve had a lot of wins, a lot of success and a lot of fun.”
And there’s no disputing what Martin has accomplished over the past 29 years is nothing short of terrific: 40 wins, 264 top 5s (33%), 470 top 10s (58%) and 49 poles speak of a remarkable consistency in a sport that can spit you up and chew you out in an instant — just ask three-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti. Of course there is one major blot on the Mark Martin copybook: namely, his failure to win the title. He’s finished in the first loser position on five separate occasions (1990, 1994, 1998, 2002 and most recently 2009). It really doesn’t need to be said, but time is short, super short, for him to capture that elusive first cup championship. And realistically, although he plans to continue racing next year at a yet to be determined team, 2011 is likely Martin’s last major chance in very top of the line equipment.
So far, not so bad for Martin, then, in 2011: Sunday’s tenth place finish eased the veteran into the final automatic Chase position (10th) in the regular season standings. Whilst he has not been spectacular, Martin has finished on the lead lap in all six races and with his level of consistency and dedication, you wouldn’t back against him making it back to the Chase again, after missing out on the post season in 2010. Following the big Hendrick Motorsport crew chief shuffle last November, Martin was paired with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s previous head wrench Lance McGrew. It’s a partnership that Martin is desperate to make succeed right from the get-go.
“My top goal this year is to prove to the world how great of a crew chief Lance McGrew really is so they will get off his butt. He is a good crew chief and has put up with a lot of abuse over the last two years,” said Martin prior to the start of the season.”
And it’s exactly that kind of fierce loyalty and desire to prove people wrong that has been a hallmark of Martin’s sure to be Hall of Fame career.
“Before I worked with Alan Gustafson,” Martin continued, “everyone said the only reason he’d won races was because of Kyle Busch. Well, we proved them wrong on that because he won with me too, an old man.”
I first met Mark Martin when we shot a Nextel commercial called Flip with Carl Edwards. It was a drizzly, dreary January winter’s morning at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Cousin Carl was fresh off a phenomenal first full season (four wins, 13 top 5’s, 18 top 10s) and a third place overall finish, a mere 35 points behind champion Tony Stewart. Martin, who was about to run his 19th and final season for Jack Roush, had finished just one place behind the then much younger “Young Gun” in the final standings.
During one of several rain delays, I got to chat a little with Martin and I have to say he really is as advertised: He’s funny, he’s engaging and he’s self deprecating and he regaled us with long lists of his favorite Rap artists amongst other topics. It’s not at all surprising, then, when he said this past weekend: “I’ve made friends out here that will be friends forever, and I can’t imagine anything else I would have rather been doing than racing all of those days.”
I’ve written here before that I think a Mark Martin cup crown would be one of the greatest sporting stories of all time. This year, as there has been so many times in the past three decades, Martin has another chance to get it done. He’ll need to start accruing top 5s, laps led and the odd win or two, but given the type of driver he is, the team he’s backed by, and the results so far, he’s in the mix – albeit there is a long way to go. He can certainly make the Chase even with this year’s congested field of contenders, and once there he’s proved before on multiple occasions he can hang in until the final stages. So who knows? Maybe after so many attempts one of the sport’s genuine good guys is finally going to bring home the bacon. Stranger things have happened in sport, that’s for sure.
One very quick final point: Matt McLaughlin wrote in his excellent Frontstretch Martinsville Race Recap piece — “I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again: there’s nothing wrong with the new NASCAR an old racetrack can’t fix.” All I have to say to that is Amen brother. Amen.
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