The Frontstretch: A Lifetime of Trials, Tribulation, and Tragedy: Mark Martin and Rick Hendrick Setting The Stage For NASCAR's Biggest Comeback Story by Vito Pugliese -- Wednesday April 22, 2009

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Retire (ri tīr′) : to give up one’s work, business, career, etc., esp. because of advanced age

Before we went any further, I just wanted to make sure everybody understood the definition as stated above and clear up any misconceptions that have been floated about since 2005: Mark Martin never did retire nor say he was going to retire from racing.

Everyone clear on that? Good. Then let’s move forward.

Saturday night has proven to be the most memorable moment thus far in the 2009 NASCAR season. In a year when the racing has been lackluster and largely forgettable, it was some much needed medicine for a season that has been sickly and sorry at best. Mark Martin ended an excruciating 97-race winless drought, dating back to Kansas in October 2005, by dominating the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway.

Congratulatory scenes like this were common following Mark Martin’s first Cup win in years.

Martin’s was a popular victory with fans and the garage area in general, as fellow competitors and teammates came by to offer congratulations to the hardest working man in motorsports in Victory Lane. A scene not witnessed since Dale Earnhardt won the Daytona 500 in 1998, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody with a conscience that wasn’t happy to see Martin finally hit it just right after enduring so many misses over the last few years.

But with as much genuine outpouring of appreciation and good cheer surrounding his win, there was also a somber and solemn element as well.

Upon exiting his winning Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, Martin invoked the name of a previous Hendrick driver, Tim Richmond. He remembered how great it was to see Richmond win after coming back from a bout with pneumonia that was ultimately the result of the AIDS virus he had contracted. He mentioned how Rick Hendrick was able to make his fallen comrade’s dreams come true; and now, he had done the same for Martin, who has been so close to winning the last few years – even while running a limited schedule. It was a personal invitation from Hendrick that led him to shelve his part-time status and return to the fold full-time for another run at the ultimate prize that has eluded him for so long: a Sprint Cup championship.

But despite the outward enthusiasm, Martin’s victory celebration itself was as muted as his previous 35 wins (save for some half-hearted infield donuts following a Coca-Cola 600 win in 2002) in NASCAR’s top division. Much as Barry Sanders would just flip the ball to the referee after scoring a touchdown, Martin eschewed the requisite burnout and donut routine that has become trite and passé in NASCAR. “No burnouts for me, boys…” he told his team over the radio.

Instead, he carefully maneuvered his No. 5 CARQUEST Chevrolet around to pick up the checkered flag, and proceeded to execute a Polish Victory Lap – one christened by his late friend Alan Kulwicki upon his first career win at the very same track in 1988. Kulwicki’s life was tragically cut short on April 1, 1993 in a plane crash. It’s hard to believe it has been 16 years since that tragic happening, but the significance still weighed heavy for Martin.

During his press conference, Martin clarified the gesture: “I actually had quite a bit of thought about Alan; he might have been in front of me had he still been around, tonight.”

Former car owner Jack Roush, a victim of a plane crash himself and a survivor of sorts, was one of the first to come by and congratulate Martin in Victory Lane. Seven years earlier, Martin was among the first to join Roush as he clung to life following his flying accident in a Birmingham, Ala., hospital – standing beside the man whom he owed so much of his career and success to the day after his boss’s birthday. This time, congratulations and birthday wishes were exchanged under drastically better circumstances.

As for Martin’s current owner, it is both coincidental and tragically ironic that so much of Mark Martin and Rick Hendrick’s worlds have been affected and shaped by some sort of horror involving aircraft. Mark’s father, Julian, his wife Shelly, and sister Sarah were lost in a 1998 plane crash the same day Martin finished second to current teammate Jeff Gordon at Watkins Glen.

Six years later, Hendrick lost his brother, John, two nieces, engine builder and friend Randy Dorton, general manager Jeff Turner, and — perhaps most painful — his son Ricky in a plane that crashed en route to Martinsville, VA just as Jimmie Johnson was taking the checkered flag in October. Also lost were DuPont executive Joe Jackson, friend and Tony Stewart pilot Scott Lathram, pilot Richard Tracy, and Elizabeth Morrison.

The following weekend in Atlanta, it was Martin who dominated the race, leading 227 of 325 laps in his Roush Ford. But after getting tripped up by a late race caution and some resulting pit stops, he was not able to overtake Johnson for the win, finishing just a car length or so behind a driver and team who had a sizable hole in their hearts. Regardless of your own driver and team affiliation that day, it was hard not to be happy for a group of people who had suffered unimaginable grief in the days preceding – and those that were to follow.

Yet while many would not fault Martin or Hendrick if they decided to pack it in after such incomprehensible losses of family and friends, the duo continued to press on. No amount of success will ever fill the void that remains; but for the type of people that live and thrive to compete in a sport for which they dedicated so much of their lives, it serves as a fitting tribute to their memories.

After departing Roush Racing in 2006, Martin began a new role as part-time driver and mentor for Ginn Racing. With a quick cash infusion, some new equipment, one of the greatest ever to hold the wheel at 10 and 11 o’clock, and some rented Hendrick horsepower, the former MB2/MBV Motorsports team went to the Daytona 500 in 2007 and came within a scant few feet (or a few seconds, had NASCAR not changed the policy of racing while a massive wreck was underway) of winning racing’s greatest prize on its grandest stage.

As gracious in defeat as ever, Martin was a picture of professionalism that day. He got jobbed out of a win — but wasn’t going to dwell on it.

“Nobody wants to see a grown man cry,” he said. “NASCAR has made their decision. It’s over.”

It would, however, provide a dividend of sorts for Mark Martin. His new Chevrolet connection set into motion a chain of events that would lead to where he ended up Saturday night.

Martin’s first ride in a Hendrick Chevrolet was at Darlington in May of 2007 for a Nationwide Series event with current crew chief Alan Gustafson atop the pit box. It was that one race which helped plant the seed that two years later would grow into a return to full-time duty in the Cup Series in the No. 5 car – a seed that finally blossomed into a win Saturday in Phoenix, AZ.

Martin had very little practice time in the car and was unable to test prior to the race, qualifying a distant 26th. But once green flag dropped, he moved smartly up through the pack, being cheered on by both Gustafson and the car’s regular pilot, Kyle Busch. Charging forward in just 200 miles, Martin wound up finishing a close second to Denny Hamlin after a spirited late-race duel with former Roush Racing teammate Carl Edwards.

It was then that Hendrick started to work on Martin to come drive for him. It wound up taking over a year for the owner to convince him to run a full-time schedule; and now, it’s taken just eight races for the duo to score their first victory together in the desert.

Speaking of Phoenix, it was this track that had stuck like a cactus needle in Martin’s side for quite sometime. In 1990, Martin held a slim 45-point lead over Dale Earnhardt entering the penultimate race of the year, but left the track six points in arrears, a result that ultimately cost him the championship.

In 2000, he held the lead at Phoenix until the final five laps when he was passed by then-teammate Jeff Burton for the win. In 2006, Martin dominated the Spring Phoenix race more so than he did this year. However, on the final pit stop the rear tire changer left a lug nut off, sending him to the back of the pack. He had to manically drive up through the field – which he did – only to run so hard that he ran out of fuel after retaking third place.

In 2008 Martin had the race won yet again — until some confusion and uncertainty within the DEI No. 8 team led them to bring him in for fuel. That extra stop — which was likely unnecessary – surrendered what would have guaranteed a trip to Victory Lane.

As trite a saying as there is, there is some truth to it: Good things come to those who wait.

As for this year’s Phoenix affair, Friday’s final practice session was the first time Martin had been completely satisfied with his car all season. Finally, the team had hit on what they needed to give their driver so he could work his magic. A pole winning run, a practice session cut short by perfecting the setup, and a flawless performance in the pits by his crew during the race propelled him to what should be the first of more wins this season. Sitting 13th in points, Martin and the No. 5 bunch are all of nine points out of the 12th and final transfer position for the Chase. Even more telling, they are just 100 points out of seventh in the standings. That’s a gap capable of being made up in one weekend; and with the next event at Talladega this Sunday, that becomes a very real possibility.

Just don’t expect Martin to think about it just yet.

——

“I am going to cherish this victory. You never know when one is going to be your last. This might be the last race I ever win.”

That is a quote from Mark Martin. However, it wasn’t from this past weekend. That was back in 1997 after winning at Infineon Raceway following a winless ’96 season that had him questioning his future in the sport. It seemed ludicrous back then, 12 years ago, and seems equally inconceivable today.

Following that breakthrough win, Martin won the very next week that year. The track? Talladega.

Mark Martin has said of late that he still has the same hunger for racing and winning that is as intense now as it was in 1982 when he went full-time Cup racing for the first time. While things may not have always worked out the way he wished, the tragedy, trials, and tribulations he has endured along with new car owner and friend Rick Hendrick have set the stage for perhaps the ultimate comeback story in NASCAR. Except there’s only one little problem with all of this:

He never left to begin with.

Contact Vito Pugliese

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Charles Willbanks
04/22/2009 09:14 AM
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Mark is a connection to the NASCAR I truly enjoyed, not so much lately. This was a big win for me also.
Thanks Mark
Nice article

nascrud1
04/22/2009 10:49 AM
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Mark is the epitome of “It is what we learn from failure that separates success from failure.”

don mei
04/22/2009 12:04 PM
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Mark Martin-Class act

Brian Yared
04/22/2009 12:35 PM
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good to hear somebody finally put into words what I’ve been feeling all along. Viva Voice of Vito

David Lee
04/22/2009 05:33 PM
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Great article, Vito. I’ve followed Mark Martin from the mid ’70’s, when he was a young pup driving an orange Camaro with the #2 on the side to the track championship at the Fairgrounds Speedway in Springfield, MO. The runnerup some of those years? Rusty Wallace!

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