Thomas Bowles · Sunday July 17, 2005
Growing old, easy for some, hard for others, is an inevitable part of life that we cannot escape. Through the years, we see our friends, our family, and our heroes fall victim to an aging process that has us remembering how great they were, almost as quickly as we bask in their glory.
Rare is the moment that our heroes can turn back time, and be allowed to let a series of moments, special as they are, one final opportunity to capture our hearts. But such may be the case with Mark Martin in 2006.
At one point headed towards a peaceful sunset towards his Nextel Cup career as this season comes to a close, this weekend the garage area was abuzz with the news that Martin will return to the 6 car for one more year. And while the official company line from the Roush camp was stuck on words such as “likely,” “hopefully,” and “we’ll have to wait and see on McMurray,” all indications were that things have already been put in place. Ricky Craven, the most likely one-year replacement in the 6 car out of the Roush camp, had his name withdrawn from contention, and suddenly the rumors of everyone from Jon Wood to Sterling Marlin to the 6 car have grown magically silent. Not only that, but the chances of Ganassi releasing top driver McMurray from his Nextel Cup contract, when he may already be replacing the other two drivers in his stable for 2006 to begin with, are somewhere between “unlikely” and “impossible.” And so, we’re left with a little magic instead; a 20-chapter Nextel Cup book, quickly nearing its final pages, now will have its ending rewritten, in the same style and by the same people that made it so special in the first place.
What’s so great about Mark’s possible “unretirement” is the rarity of such an announcement; time after time, great athletes go on their farewell tours, with thousands of screaming fans shouting their love to them from the stands, wishing their role models could go on forever. In most cases those words ring hollow; as most retiring athlete’s careers have gone long past its prime, replaced instead by a worn-out character, and a mountain of memories of what the hero once did for his audience. Watch a Richard Petty race from 1992, or a Darrell Waltrip race from 2000, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about.
But in Mark’s case, the small superhero from small-town Arkansas hasn’t lost his talent, his character, or his determination. The driver of the vaunted 6 car has already won NASCAR’s version of the All-Star Race at Charlotte, and has been a contender to win at several other tracks this year. 7th in the points, he’s a strong contender for the Chase for the Championship, and as such leaves open the possibility of winning a title in a year that he began by announcing his retirement.
And not only does Martin reward prayers from legions of supporting fans with a postponed retirement, but it’s also an act of selflessness and respect to an owner who has rewarded him with 20 years of dedication. Make no mistake about it, Martin was happily preparing for his post-Nextel Cup career. He loves racing, but he loves his family more, and one look in the driver’s eyes as he works with his young son Matt at any local track will tip you off as to what the elder Martin wants to do when the bright lights of Sunday fade away. Young Matt Martin is already 13, and as he heads towards an exciting racing future, he not only wants but needs his father by his side every step of the way as he grows into a man…and a racer…to be proud of.
But the elder Martin knows he wouldn’t even be in a position to help his son if it wasn’t for the generosity and support of his longtime car owner Jack Roush. And Roush, brokenhearted by the possibility of replacing the rock at the center of his own racing foundation, could never bear the thought of his biggest success story leaving at the top of his game in the first place. As Martin said this week, “Jack wants me to keep racing until I’m 90.”
And so Roush kept looking for a way to keep Martin in the fold. He even supposedly approached Rusty Wallace, among others, about splitting a Cup ride with Martin for 2006 for a full schedule, to no avail. As much as Roush would have paid, no one was willing to enter into what would have obviously been a difficult situation, with two completely different drivers and styles looking to share a full-time Cup ride. After that failed venture, it looked like Roush was ready to give up; but instead, what we now know is he was creating a beautifully timed backup plan all along. Not only did he get the young driver he had been looking for to complete the 6’s racing future, the deal was all perfectly packaged in such a way that Roush’s original “diamond in the rough” would be incapable of saying no to one more year behind the wheel.
And so, it looks like we have Mark Martin for 38 more weekends of racing at NASCAR’s top level. And, if this does happen, whether you’re a fan of Chevrolet or Dodge, Kyle Busch or Ken Schrader, I ask you to stand and applaud the next time Martin comes your way. Because great athletes, loved or hated, rarely give us a second chance to see them walk off into the sunset, especially when they’re still capable of doing what makes them great.
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