The Voice Of Vito · Vito Pugliese · Tuesday March 20, 2007
Someone might want to contact Jim Cantore from The Weather Channel; it appears as if Hell has actually frozen over. For the first time since the November race at Atlanta in 1987, a streak of 621 consecutive races, Mark Martin will not be competing in a NASCAR Cup Series event. Ranking 4th on the all-time list behind Ricky Rudd, Terry Labonte, and Dale Earnhardt, Sr. for consecutive starts, Martin finally takes a break this weekend. It’s not due to injury, poor qualifying effort, or fear of flying CoT wings and splitters that sends Martin off to the sidelines; it’s simply because he has more “pressing business” at a dirt track in Lake City, Florida.
Forgive me for still getting over the initial shock that other “pressing business” is now just as important for Martin as being at Bristol this weekend. It’s not an easy thought to accept, especially when Mark hasn't missed a race for anything in almost 20 years. In 1998, while in the midst of the best year of his career, he lost both his father and his hero rolled into one, Julian Martin, in a tragic plane crash; his stepmother and sister were also killed. One week later, he won the night race at Bristol in dramatic fashion. When he broke his knee and wrist in a crash during final practice for the 1999 Pepsi 400, Martin showed up the next day with a cast, hobbling over to his backup car in order to compete. A few laps into the race, he radioed his crew to give him something on the next pit stop so he could cut his cast off; you see, he was having to drive the car with one hand, and that just wasn’t getting it done. During that same year, a deteriorating spinal condition forced him to be picked up by his crewmen and shoveled into the racecar; the pain was so paralyzing, he couldn’t hoist himself in or out of the car. He had excruciatingly painful spinal fusion surgery in that offseason that had many questioning if he would even be able to return, but at the 2000 Daytona 500, Martin led the most laps, finished in the Top 5, and, as always, proved that nothing would keep him from his lifetime passion.
After all the ups and downs, this much is clear; if Mark Martin's not showing up to a race, he must have a pretty important reason.
Much has been made this season about whether or not Mark Martin would renege on his initial wish to not compete full-time in 2007. After all, it was 2005 that was supposed to be Martin’s last go round in Cup in the first place. Two years later, the veteran’s stronger now than he was then; following a controversial finish at Daytona that had him winning the 500 but losing the Daytona 505, a string of four Top 10 finishes has him leading the points this early in the year for the first time since 2000. During the last month, Martin’s faced renewed pressure from the media, fans, and his fellow competitors to keep those good times rolling, giving him the opportunity to perhaps cash in on a long-awaited chance at a championship. This time, however, Martin appears to be making good on a plan he had set in motion way back in 2003.
That year was a tumultuous time for Martin and Jack Roush’s No. 6 organization. Coming off a 2002 season where he was in contention to win his first Cup title up through the final race at Homestead, the team had nothing but high expectations entering that year. Sadly, those lofty goals would never be reached; while the No. 6 team ran strong early, pit miscues, mechanical failures, and crashes not of his doing seemed to stymie any momentum Martin’s team would ever try and build. While teammate Matt Kenseth was running away with the championship and his fellow teammates Kurt Busch and rookie Greg Biffle were winning races, the No. 6 team floundered week in and week out, leaving Martin winless for the second time in three years. Crew chief Ben Leslie, who guided Martin to a resurgence after an equally dismal 2001 season, found himself looking for work before the year was over; he was replaced by Pat Tryson, who would remain with Martin through his remaining tenure at Roush.
After having endured three crew chiefs and two winless and uninspired seasons in three years, the lines and cracks on Martin’s face told the tale at the time. Each one represented a win that slipped away, a blown motor, a botched pit stop, or a championship tantalizingly close but lost in the closing laps of the series’ final race. The stress and pressure of a full-time Cup schedule had brought one of the greatest drivers ever to seriously question his abilities behind the wheel.
As such, the 2004 season saw Martin more manic than usual to make the inaugural Chase (had he not, sponsor Pfizer-Viagra would not have returned for 2005), and the following year’s Going Away Party, the "Salute To You" tour, proved even more successful on and off the track. A surprise return in 2006 to help out the owner and team that resurrected his career did nothing more than to stoke Martin’s competitive fire that much further. Instead of fading away, he wanted just to step back; his dream became running a limited schedule in Nextel Cup, acting as more of a driver coach and mentor than anything else. This did not meet with what management at Roush Racing had in mind, and they denied their founding driver his request, asking him to consider a full-time ride in the Truck Series instead.
Once that happened, most expected Martin to just go with the flow; so it was no shock that more than a few eyebrows got raised when Martin agreed to replace Joe Nemecheck in the U.S. Army Chevrolets for Ginn Racing. Formerly MB2 Motorsports, Ginn was traditionally a strong second-tier Cup team whose first win came in 2002 with driver Johnny Benson. Coincidentally, it was Benson who held off Mark Martin in a last lap duel at Rockingham for the team’s first ever win at the Cup level. The move to Ginn Racing afforded Martin the opportunity to do two things: spend more time with his son Matt Martin, nurturing his career, along with mentoring other young drivers through the Ginn Racing development program. This weekend marks the beginning of that next chapter in his racing career and his life, and not even sitting atop the points for the first time since 2002 will derail those plans.
The driver who for two decades agonized over every position and point gained or lost will instead be guiding his son Matt in a late model race along with Ricky Carmichael, arguably the greatest Supercross rider in history who now looks to a career firmly planted on four wheels. Martin, who was always trying to balance being a racecar driver with being a father, can now take a deep breath; he’s got the time and the energy to do the things he's always wanted to do. Matt has been racing since he was 7 years old, but Mark's schedule did not allow for much involvement with his son's endeavors. In comparison, Mark was 15 when he began competing, with his father Julian his biggest supporter, sponsor, chief mechanic, truck driver, and so much more. Now Matt is 15, and it’s time for the son to make the next step in his burgeoning racing career with the father by his side.
Mark no doubt would like to have the same impact on his son's life as Julian had on his. While not forcing Matt into racing, like any father, he wants to be able to guide him along the path should he decide this is what he wants to dedicate his life to. Martin also looks to have a similar impact on the other young drivers in the Ginn camp, such as Regan Smith, Ricky Carmichael, Craig Kinser, and Jesus Hernandez. It’s a natural path for the 48-year-old to take; Tony Stewart often laments Martin leaving the Busch Series, as he credits him with teaching so many drivers how to handle themselves on and off the track before making the move to Nextel Cup. Martin will now be doing that long before this new crop of drivers take that final step.
With Mark Martin running a limited schedule, he finally has the best of everything; fast racecars, a shot to win every week, no more obsessing over points, and the opportunity to forge a relationship with his son as strong as the one he had enjoyed with his father. That is something that you can't put a price on, and far outweighs the value that any championship might hold. So, enjoy the weekend off, Mark…no question, you've earned it.
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