The Frontstretch: The Unluckiest Driver In Auto Racing? by Kurt Smith -- Friday April 18, 2008

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The Unluckiest Driver In Auto Racing?

Kurt Smith · Friday April 18, 2008


Being the undeniable gentleman that he is, Mark Martin would probably take exception to my calling him the unluckiest driver in auto racing. He would counter that he has won 35 Cup races and 47 Busch races, driven for top notch teams, and pulled down an amazing five IROC championships. And how many drivers have finished in the Top 5 in the standings 12 times?

But the only luck involved in any of those accomplishments is getting into an organization that can build a great car underneath him. Throughout his career, he has certainly proven himself worthy of that kind of luck.

Watching the Phoenix race, I couldn't help but think that it was just another in a long line of disappointments for Martin that would have aggravated the hell out of most any mortal. Imagine if he had pulled down a victory in the No. 8 car before Junior nailed his first in the No. 88. For all of Mark Martin's achievements, for all of the respect he has earned from his fans and his peers, the big prizes so often elude him. And so often it happens through merciless twists of fate.

Is Mark Martin the Unluckiest Driver in Auto Racing?

It's not necessarily that he's an unlucky fellow in life. It's just that no other driver seems to compete so hard and come up on the short end so often—a seemingly meaningless penalty ultimately costing him a championship; a delayed yellow flag causing him to lose a Daytona 500 by inches—Lady Luck always seems to smile on someone other than Mark Martin. It has to sting sometimes for a competitor of his mettle.

But Mark Martin doesn't complain. After Lucy once again pulls away the football at Phoenix, he states how proud he is to drive for the U.S. Army and how privileged he is to drive for a team whose namesake didn't think was good enough.

He gets it. It's racin'.

Auto racing, probably more than any other vocation, brutally teaches its participants to accept that life ain't fair. If it was difficult for their fans to see Ryan Newman or Jeff Gordon finish last this year, one can only imagine what it's like for their teams.

Countless people put in countless hours of work getting a car ready for a race. They build, test, and compare notes. The crews spend countless hours practicing putting on tires and filling up cars with gas. The team members pack their bags and travel to tracks where they run countless laps trying to make cars go tenths of seconds faster. Dozens of people, hundreds of hours each week.

Everything is considered, right down to a guess of what the track temperature will be on race day and where the green flag runs tend to be at that track. Thought goes into the qualifying setup, thought goes into the draft setup, the car qualifies (if everyone is lucky!), and then the crew stays up through most of the night changing the car to a race setup.

And sometimes after all of this hard work, five minutes into the race another driver loses control and clips the car, sending it around, into the wall and wrecked beyond repair for a 42nd place finish. The team "earns" 37 points. After 20 laps of racing, barely enough to get to the second commercial break, they are loading the car back into the hauler.

For all of that obvious injustice, the only appropriate words are: it's racin'.

There is nothing you can do about a sudden firestorm of bad luck.

If you're looking for a deeper meaning to existence or for some theological basis for karma, you won't find it at a racetrack. All you'll find, if you spend enough time toiling at it, as Mark Martin has, is perhaps the toughness to deal with the cruelest truth of life. It ain't fair. Bad things happen to good people.

This isn't to suggest that hard work doesn't pay off. Far from it. Only that nothing is guaranteed. And very often the difference between the champion and the first loser is an imperceptibly razor-thin slice of fortune.

A hot dog wrapper stuck on a car's grill, causing the engine to overheat. Falling short of a lugnut torque requirement and forcing a pass-through penalty to go a lap down, costing the driver twenty spots. A caution flag thrown a split second too late resulting in a loss of a position. Being just short on gas and having to pit with five laps to go. From the tiniest of occurrences, races and championships are won and lost.

To win the big prizes in racing and in life, you need to work hard, look after all of the details, and prepare for everything right down to an educated guess on the weather. On top of all of that, perhaps most of all, you need the winds of fate blowing your way at the right time.

Mark Martin is a four-time Cup runner-up. Jeff Gordon is a four-time Cup champion. Without doubt, Mark Martin and his teams worked just as hard for the trophies as Jeff Gordon and his teams did. The two drivers' disparate resumes could have been the reverse today by not a heck of a lot of luck.

That's racin'. That's life.

But it isn't enough to make Mark Martin consider himself an unlucky guy.

Kurt's Shorts After Four Hours In The Desert

  • It wasn't lost on the Official Columnist of NASCAR that Jeff Gordon has visited 200 children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That's actually pretty amazing considering the schedule he keeps. 50 would have been impressive, but 200 shows someone going above and beyond, and it has to have a world of impact on the youths that he spends time with. Jeff Gordon makes a difference with his fame. Celebrities who don't know how to handle the public eye should look at him.
  • I'm not one for drinking games, since they got me into so much trouble in my occasionally reckless youth, but if anyone out there is looking for a good one, try this: watch a NASCAR race on Fox, and take a drink every time D.W. praises the new car. Don't do it if you have to drive.
  • The musical driver's seat at Haas continues, with Ken Schrader taking over the wheel of the No. 70, replacing Johnny Sauter just one week after Sauter was called to replace Jeremy Mayfield. I understand after Talladega it may be Ward Burton's turn, and by 2009 sometime I'll finally get my shot.
  • I just passed that wonderful milestone of turning 40, and my wonderful new wife (and no, she didn't replace an old one) has given me eight laps driving a racecar at the Andretti-Gordon racing school for a gift. This ought to be good…I don't know yet when or where I'll be doing it, but I promise to share the experience with you the wonderful Frontstretch readers. Here's hoping I don't end up on Youtube.

Enjoy the off weekend y'all, see ya next week in ‘Bama.

The Frontstretch Newsletter, back in 2014 gives you more of the daily news, commentary, and racing features from your favorite writers you know and love. Don’t waste another minute – click here to sign up now. We’re here to make sure you stay informed … so make sure you jump on for the ride!

Today on the Frontstretch:
Championship Caliber? What Does That Even Mean?
Mirror Driving: Winning Vs. Points, Needing a Boost, and The Lady’s Last Dance?
Nuts for Nationwide: The Curious Case of Elliott Sadler
Happiness Is…Arrogance, Less, Next, and the Outdoors
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: It’s Not Gonna Fit…


©2000 - 2008 Kurt Smith and Thanks for visiting the Frontstretch!

04/18/2008 07:26 AM

Mark Martin is what most will call a consummate gentleman. I have never seem him lose his temper; throw a helmet or a water bottle. He’s never openly bad-mouthed a sponsor or competitor on national TV. Mark rarely gets out of his machine and walks away from a commentator and not have something positive to say. Oh sure we have all seen him be a little bent on occasion, but that in itself is a rarity. I’m hoping one day when he does finally decides to retire that he sits down and writes a book….. he can call it “How to be a Professional Racecar Driver and Nice Guy” And, as a Christmas present, he can personalize it to some of he fellow competitors…Lord knows some of them could use it.

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/18/2008 09:31 AM

Guys like Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton are what help keep NASCAR from degenerating into the NFL and NBA with seatbelts.

04/18/2008 10:17 AM

Quit whinning about Martin getting cheated or whatever, he had just as much chance as anybody else, he ain’t any different and doesn’t deserve any more than the rest.

04/18/2008 10:35 PM

Well said Vito. Racers like them are what’s lost on new fans. New fans expect more Mr. Potatoe Head and less Bill Elliot.
And Robert…one more time…“God, new fans irritate me”!

04/19/2008 01:40 PM

Wouldn’t MM have won a chmpioship one year if his team hadn’t cheated and they took points away from him?

Vito Pugliese - FS Staff
04/21/2008 05:49 PM

Point of clarification – Martin and the #6 Roush Racing Folgers team DID NOT CHEAT in 1990 at Richmond. The spacer they had on the intake manifold was bolted rather than welded on. The inspectors had to physically touch the manifold 3 times that weekend, and nothing was brought up. It was not until Bill France, at home recovering from a broken ankle received a phone call from Richard Childress protesting the win. Robin Pemberton was deemed guilty and the team fined 46 points. He lost the title by 26 points. There was no performance advantge to be gained from this, particularly on a short track on a 20 degree day. It was generally accepted that the spacer was not illegal, but the fine stood because Bill France promised Richard Childress he’d take care of it. Jack Roush has told this same story several times, and it has yet to be refuted.

It was the most rediculous points fine to date, and until just a few years ago, was the only time that points were actually taken away from a competitor for any sort of violation. At the time Martin refused to complain about it, saying that it was done and over with, and that they had plenty of time to recover as it was so early in the season.

Later that same season, Dale Earnhardt’s pit crew at Charlotte failed to secure the lug nuts on the car. The wheels feel off as he exited pit road. His crew ran down pitroad with a jack and wheels, and serviced the car not only out of the box, but virtually on the apron of the track. No penalties were issued.

This was back at a time when not being from the South and/or driving a Ford was not in your best interests as a NASCAR competitor. Being sponsored by the largest company on the planet however, was probably not such a bad thing.

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