Bowles-Eye View · Thomas Bowles · Sunday August 27, 2006
You…fall away…from your past
But it’s following you…
The race for the Chase, in many respects, sorted itself out at Bristol. One by one, the challengers pretending to be contenders fell by the wayside, with Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch, and Greg Biffle victims of both their own bad luck and difficult seasons that never quite straightened out. Now, eleven drivers remain for only ten spots, with just one unlucky man forced to live with the disappointment of missing out on a shot for the title. Just 90 points separate the victim from the victorious, title dreams from an offseason headache.
With two races left, the leading candidate for victim is no surprise, if only because he's played the part many times before.
I swear you recall
Nothing at all
That can make you come back down
Three months ago, Mark Martin was busy enjoying another great season. Third in points, a shade over 200 behind formidable foes Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the No. 6 car would not only be a championship contender, but a shoe-in for the Chase well before the checkered flag at Richmond.
But even then, there were shades of black cats and snake eyes and all sorts of bad luck charms to come. In Phoenix that April, Martin had led 111 laps and had a victory all but sewn up before a loose left front lugnut on a pit stop sent Martin to the back of the pack. He recovered to finish 11th, but precious points were left on the table. Those demons reappeared at Dover, where another pit miscue had Martin finishing 9th with a Top 3 car.
But the true turning point seemed to be Michigan in June, a track at which Martin typically shines. Struggling in the race already, Martin was still in contention for a Top 10 finish; but with rain on the horizon, the team decided to bring the car in for four fresh tires, giving up precious spots on the track and hoping that the coming shower would pass by quickly, giving the No. 6 car the lead when everyone else chose to pit after the rain.
Instead, it poured and the race was called.
You left something undone
It's now your rerun
It's the one you can't erase
Martin forced a smile after that, and warded off any major team changes after those problems; after all, this was the group, by and large, that had brought him back from the brink of obscurity in 2003, and he didn’t want to cut them loose in his final hours. Loyalty knows no bounds for Martin, and his gratefulness for having his career saved instead of politely faded away would always overshadow any mistakes.
But the team seemed forever off-kilter after that, failing to right the ship until a 4th in Loudon in July, unlocking the door to the Chase and cracking it open after being a lock halfway through the year. Strong finishes at Indy and Michigan served to try and push that door back shut. For sure, Martin was still in danger, but one strong run at Bristol would lift him back into the safe zone. Uncharacteristically, Martin spoke volumes about his car at the short track, telling anyone who would listen how good his car was for Saturday night.
He should know better by now not to let the black cat out of the bag.
You should have made it right
So you wouldn’t have to fight
To put a smile back on your face
The penalty was a simple one, one that many teams every week nearly make but fix before the crew even touches a right side tire. Martin pulled into the backstretch pits for a routine stop on lap 64, patiently waiting for a four tire change the way in which he was biding his time through traffic, comfortably running 10th to 15th until the time was right to move up front in the race's second half. But pit road has been anything but routine for the 6 team, and so was the car's position in the pit box. The car was over the line; the official had noticed the crime.
“I made a mistake,” said Martin when it was all over. “I was on the line and didn’t know it and the officials didn’t call it until we were gone…I’ve got to take the blame for that one.”
The penalty was a lap in the pits, and just like that, anyone who knew anything about Mark Martin knew exactly how the night was going to end up. Tracks like Daytona, Talladega, Bristol take their wrecks and throw them in front of the No. 6 car like bullets out of a gun; and how often do you dodge a bullet, really?
Not too often. This time, Bristol didn’t take too much longer to pull the trigger. 150 laps later and still one lap down, Martin started directly behind the lapped car of Scott Wimmer, who had some sort of mechanical problem on the restart. With nowhere to go, Martin slammed into the rear of his car; Wimmer spent the rest of the night in the garage, while Martin only wished he could do the same; both his car and his night were quickly ancient history. Riding around at a snail’s pace, a car capable of winning finished 27th, and Martin made news for dropping an obscene six spots in the standings to 10th instead of visiting Victory Lane.
You made up your mind
To leave it all behind
Now you're forced to fight it outâ€¦
Martin has spent his weekends at his track with the clock on his career thrown in his face, the wheels inside constantly ticking down. It's been that way for almost two years now, a self-imposed retirement turned comeback turned extended favor to Jack Roush turned when are you going to actually pack up and leave? Other than Brett Favre, no one in any sport has been asked, more like dogged, about the question of retirement these last 12 months than Martin. Yet he answers all questions with the trademark smile and comfort of a man who's raced too long to be fazed by repetition. Now the only man over 40 in the Top 20 in Nextel Cup points, he watches the other veterans as they fade into lapped traffic, holds his ground as he becomes the exception to the rules of this younger generation. When will the 47-year-old finally move aside, people wonder, so another pretty face with a nice little sponsor can come in with no experience, crash a few cars, and smile in front of those publicity cameras?
On my plane home from Bristol, a fellow passenger shared a story from Kansas City awhile back. At a riverboat casino, all the people on the ship gravitated to the roulette wheel, where Tony Stewart was busy laughing and talking with a large crowd of fans while placing his fortune on red and black. Wanting to be away from the action, the man went to another roulette wheel in another corner of the casino. Sitting there with a few other random strangers, no one acknowledging one another, it took a little while for the man to even recognize the man standing to his right. Finally, he turned and staredâ€¦he knew this man from somewhere.
It was Martin.
You…fall away…from your past
But it’s following you…
On the surface, Martin still appears safe; 90 points ahead of eleventh place Kasey Kahne, all he needs is to keep away from bad luck in order to stay afloat. Yet, that statement is exactly the problem; when luck is involved, it’s never seemed to go his way. Who can forget 1990, when a NASCAR sanctioned penalty against Martin’s team eventually caused him to lose the title to Dale Earnhardt by a scant 26 points. In 1998, when Martin had one of the best seasons of anyone in the modern era, Jeff Gordon doubled his win total and routed him on his way to title number three. There were several other opportunities that slipped away; 2002 and Tony Stewart, 1992 and the six car battle for the title, 1994 and the year Martin got hot too late. People don't label the man “best driver not to win a championship” without reason. In some ways, Martin is already 50 points behind Kahne.
Even the car owner knows this team has always played by different odds.
“My heart is heavy for Mark Martin,” said Jack Roush after Saturday’s race. “It will be one of the biggest disappointments in my life…if we’re not able to see Mark compete for the Nextel Cup championship.”
So, with Jack, the rest of the NASCAR world is busy holding its breath. In theory, everything should be alright; but the black cat has walked in front of the 6 car too many times, changed the story too many ways, for anyone to say it won’t dish out one final blow.
Editor’s Note: The song lyrics in this story come from music from the band The Fray. Their CD, How To Save A Life, is produced by EPIC and can be bought in your local music store.
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