Thompson in Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Tuesday April 17, 2007
Mark Martin might need to reevaluate his retirement plan…again.
After another Top 5 finish to his credit at Texas, it’s becoming more and more apparent every time Martin climbs into the No. 01 Army Chevrolet that his self-imposed, semi-retirement plans are just not working out as originally envisioned. His original 2007 idea of running a limited Cup schedule while Ginn Racing, his new employer, gradually developed their promising apprentice Regan Smith, seemed on the surface to be a logical one. But Martin's continued superior level of performance suggests that maybe the timing for him to fade away from the sport needs further adjustments. Even after taking a breather during the two races leading up to Sunday’s Samsung 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Martin is still a contender to win the Nextel Cup Championship this season. He finds himself in 11th place in the standings, solidly in Chase contention with Top 10 finishes in each of the five events he’s entered.
No one can question the highly respected veteran’s sincerity to remove himself from the ultra-stressful life that he has led for more than a quarter of a century. Martin's resolve to make this year the one where his career finally begins to wind down became clear when he declined to compete in the Food City 500 at Bristol despite leading the driver standings entering that race. As difficult of a decision as it may have been to sit out that event and the following one at Martinsville, Va., that time away from the limelight should have put the issue of a legitimate championship run to rest; after all, Martin would end up missing two of six races by the time his bye weeks were over. Had Martin performed like a driver needing to retireâ€¦it would have been. However, the rested Batesville, Arkansas native picked up where he left off after the first five races of the season and finished strong at Texas, his third place run catapulting him back into championship eligibility after falling to fifteenth in points during his two race sabbatical.
Should Martin pilot the No. 01 Chevrolet to another impressive finish Sunday at the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix, expect the pressure on Martin to reconsider and run for the title to reach new heights. Not only is Martin still in championship contention after spotting the field two races, but also any thought he might have had that his early season success was unsustainable or even a fluke should have evaporated by now. This Bobby Ginn-owned No. 01 team is for real…and Martin knows it. In a press release this week, Martin offered an exceptionally bold statement: “This is just an incredible race team here at Ginn Racing. The cars are fast, the pit strategy is brilliant, and the guys really get it done on pit road when it counts. You really just couldn’t ask for more in a team, and it’s the best team I’ve ever worked with."
No doubt, there was no offense intended to Mark's longtime boss and friend, Jack Roush, in that comment. But as a four-time runner-up to the NASCAR Cup championship, Martin knows full well what a championship caliber team looks like, and evidently he is highly impressed with his new team’s ability to perform. Perhaps as telling an indicator of the team’s abilities is its performance during the veteran’s absence at Bristol and Martinsville, where the still very raw rookie Regan Smith brought the Army racecar home in respectable fashion with 25th and 26th place finishes. Smith's results were encouraging, as the main objective going into both races were for him to just stay out of trouble and log as much "seat time" as possible at those two treacherous tracks.
It would have been understandable early on for Martin, as well as others, to not seriously consider Ginn Racing a championship contending caliber organization this season, especially so soon after last year’s ownership change. Yet, all indications are that the former MB2 Motorsports bunch can no longer be viewed as also-rans in the series. Besides the remarkable performance of the Martin / Smith U.S. Army Chevrolet, now ranked fourth in owner points, Ginn’s other two teams have shown signs of life. In particular, the No. 13 Chevrolet driven by "Front Row" Joe Nemechek might be even more indicative of the organization’s strength than Martin. Nemechek, assigned to the new team to make way for Martin’s arrival this season, has qualified for all but one race so far. Presently, the No. 13 team ranks 25th in owner points, ahead of thirteen other teams that have raced in one more event than Nemechek and well within the Top 35 cars that are guaranteed to start races from week to week. Nemechek’s success after such a poor start last year is a clear indication Ginn Racing is making all the right moves.
It is hard to know whether to feel sorry for Martin or to marvel at his good fortune. Like the previous two seasons Martin, as a result of his masterful driving and exceptional equipment, finds himself once again a legitimate contender for the long elusive Cup championship that he no longer desires to allow to control his life. But stillâ€¦there it is, a trophy right there for the taking…if only Martin could keep this all together. The possibility of winning the 2007 Cup Championship brings with it complicated decisions to be made by Martin in the coming days. Does he keep to his present plan and not race at Talladega in two weeks, or does he agree to a compromise: race at the superspeedway, then make his future plans for the season based by both performance and his driver’s ranking going forward on a week-by-week basis?
Presently, Martin is scheduled to compete in the next six Nextel Cup points-earning events after Talladega, plus the Nextel Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 19th. A "see-how-it-goes" approach from here on through the Michigan race in mid-June seems to be a reasonable alternative considering the present position that Martin finds himself in. At that time, any question of whether there is a real possibility of winning a championship should be clearer, as there will be only three regular season races left to go. Martin can evaluate his position right then and there and decide his level of participation in the remaining thirteen races. All he would have to agree to in accomplishing this would be by simply adding the Talladega race date to his already "subject to change" schedule.
The external pressures generated by devoted fans and media outlets alike could greatly impact Martin's outlook for the remainder of the season. But the internal pressures will undoubtedly play a larger role in any thoughts Martin may entertain to revising his present schedule. Spoken or unspoken, Martin must know that his crew would welcome a chance to take him to his first NASCAR Cup series championship. Likewise, he knows that Bobby Ginn and the whole Ginn Racing organization would be thrilled with the real possibility of an owner's title; it’s a possibility that can be best realized only with Martin in the No. 01 cockpit for the remainder of the season.
A man that has worked hard and positioned himself for retirement ought to be able to go out on his own terms. That is all Mark Martin has been trying to do; but generally, by the time a man decides to start thinking about retiringâ€¦he probably should. In Martin's case, he's still too much at the top of his game to get anyone else to agree that his retiring is a good idea. His veteran leadership and impressive driving keys to any team’s future success, Martin is a man who is simply not easily replaced.
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