Thomas Bowles · Sunday June 5, 2005
Not every athlete can get his career to finish with the perfect ending. The list of them is few and far between: John Elway in the NFL comes to mind, but not many more. Instead, most athletes follow the career path of NFL receiver Jerry Rice. Once the best receiver ever to catch a football, Rice finds himself still trying to hang on as a role player at 43, nearly a decade past his prime. And even when the endings look like they’re perfect, the itch to come back and play again is just too much. Great athletes can think they’re invincible, that their talent will never fade; so they try again, like the NBA’s Michael Jordan, only to discover that their game, and the sport, has passed them by.
NASCAR athletes are no different in this respect. The past 20 years have seen some ugly endings to what were otherwise great careers. Richard Petty hung on for another eight years after winning his 200th race in 1984, and never won again. In fact, at age 54 he ran his final season without a single Top 10 finish, and his last race literally went up in flames with a fiery crash at the Fall Atlanta race in 1992. Darrell Waltrip, the all-time winningest driver in the modern era, suffered the same fate. Aside from an 11th-place run at Indianapolis in 2000 after starting from the outside pole, Waltrip spent the majority of his last two seasons watching from the sidelines, with several DNQs and zero Top 10s in his last two seasons with Travis Carter’s #66. Unfrotunately, the list goes on and on with NASCAR’s classic drivers. Harry Gant. Cale Yarborough. Benny Parsons. David Pearson. All of these were drivers who not only went winless, but endured a struggle in their final season behind the wheel.
Which is why we need to stand up and truly appreciate what’s going on with two of the greatest drivers in our era. Sitting either inside or on the cusp of the points Top 10 the whole season have been the veteran stalwarts ready to walk away after this year’s final race at Homestead: Rusty Wallace and Mark Martin. After a prolonged slump in 2004, Wallace has been competitive at every race this year, and the consistency that has dogged him for most of the past decade is finally returning in full force. And Martin has already won this season, albeit in the All-Star Race, while placing in the Top 5 three times and threatening to win at Martinsville.
The fact these men are competitive is even more impressive when cosidering the burden these final seasons place on both themselves and their fans in this modern era of NASCAR. Mark Martin’s “Salute to You” tour has seen hordes of fans place themselves around him at every appearance he makes, his popularity soaring for the humble underdog in the waning days of his career. A “Mark Martin” Day held at his new Ford dealership in Batesville, Arkansas drew over 10,000 dedicated fans back in March, and that’s just one event. Martin gets mobbed everywhere he goes on the Nextel Cup tour, a huge distraction for a man that wasn’t always in the limelight. Not only that, Martin added a 14-race Busch schedule in 2005, is racing in the IROC series for the final time, and is working on putting together his full-time Craftsman Truck Series deal for 2006.
Over on Rusty’s side, the load doesn’t get any lighter, but for different reasons. The “Last Call” tour has seen a similar barrage of fans come out of the woodwork, that’s for sure, and Rusty has had to deal with the same amount of appearances. But for the man who spent almost three-quarters of his career with Roger Penske, Wallace faces some emotional trauma at what will soon be his former place of employment. Wallace’s share in the 2 car has been bought out, likely a result of his simmering feud with Ryan Newman, a feud which refuses to die and, at this point, Penske appears ready to fix simply by waiting for Wallace to retire and leave. At the same time, Rusty is busy putting together a Busch deal for talented son Stephen, and focused on getting him race ready for 2006 and beyond, all while running a full-time Busch car in 2005 to boot.
With all the hooplah surrounding their retirement years, it would simply be enough for most fans, I’m sure, to have these drivers go into Homestead with a chance to win the race. But instead, they’re exceeding anyone’s expectations, and could likely go into that race with a shot at a Nextel Cup title under the new system. A title for either would be wildly popular: everyone knows how Mark has never won, and Rusty’s last title came in 1989, in a whole different time with a whole different type of competition. The bigger question is, would either one come back for 2006 if they finished the year on top, even with just a win and not a title? I hope not, because there’s no better way to go out, and I’d hate to see them fall into the typical famous athlete trap of not being able to let go.
So stand up, cheer, and applaud these two as they ride off into the sunset. Just don’t expect them to stay on board when the sun goes down. I like that.
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