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Thompson in Turn 5: Mark Martin Finds Part-Time Work Away From Roush… And It’s OK

Last Friday at Talladega, Mark Martin announced his future racing plans, raising more than a few eyebrows with his intentions. As you’ve likely already heard by now, Martin will leave Roush Racing to drive the No. 01 Chevrolet presently driven by Joe Nemechek and owned by MB2 Motorsports in 2007. The arrangement is reported to have Martin compete in 20 Nextel Cup races, as well as the Bud Shootout and the All-Star Challenge; rookie Regan Smith will finish out the schedule, driving the other 16 events.

The announcement has left some NASCAR observers bewildered as to why Martin has chose to run a limited Cup schedule, as opposed to his previously announced intentions to race full-time for Roush in the lower-tier Craftsman Truck Series. But a closer investigation of Martin’s decision-making process proves that this move should work out for the best for everyone involved.

In attempting to explain why he has chose to continue to compete at NASCAR’s highest level, Martin said, “I was 39 years old when I started making my plans for the future (after racing). I realize that was way too early. (But) I thought that, at the age that I am right now, I wouldn’t be able to compete with these young guys the way I have in the past (by running full-time). And I think everybody knows I’m not interested in just riding around.”

Then, as if to validate his assertion that he is still, at 47 years old, more than capable of competing, Martin promptly qualified on the pole for Saturday’s John Deere 250 on the high banks of Talladega, and came back from a lap down to win at the inaugural Craftsman Truck Series race at the 2.66-mile superspeedway. To further punctuate his fitness and ability to still compete, the four-time runner-up to the Nextel Cup championship then proceeded to place eighth in the UAW-Ford 500 that Sunday. A solid top-10 finish, after qualifying 30th, allowed the Batesville, Ark. native to not only maintain his third-place position in the current championship standings, but actually narrow the margin between him and points leader Jeff Burton to a mere 10 points.

LUNKENHEIMER: TRACKING THE TRUCKS – 2006 JOHN DEERE 250 AT TALLADEGA

Judging from Martin’s ability to get the job done over the last three years, he clearly misjudged some eight years ago just how much reserve stamina and talent he possessed. Martin, one of three drivers that have qualified for the “Chase” in each year of its existence, has two fourth-place end-of-season points finishes under this format, both times finishing just over 100 points behind the eventual winners of the championship. The strong performances have convinced Martin that leaving NASCAR Cup racing altogether to spend more time with his family and guide his teenage son Matt Martin in his budding racing career is simply more difficult than he originally thought it would be. “When you can compete like I have been the last couple of years in this type of competition,” said Martin in his Friday press conference. “It’s hard to step away from it.”

Some have suggested that Martin’s move to MB2 Motorsports is in some way a betrayal of Ford Motor Company and Roush Racing, who he has driven for and gained his fame and fortune with since he returned to Cup racing full-time in 1988. However, Jack Roush has made his sincere best wishes for his longtime driver abundantly clear, exhibiting not a hint of acrimony as Martin’s decision was made public. In fact, Roush was present for, and sat with, Martin during Friday’s announcement. “Mark is my dearest friend outside my immediate family,” Roush said; having previously referred to Martin “as the brother I never had,” he quite obviously does not believe that Mark has been anything less than “above board” with him throughout this process.

Critics immediately decried the move as stabbing both Ford and Roush in the back; but any such suggestion of disloyalty by Martin would simply be without merit. Intending to leave the Cup circuit full-time at the end of 2005, Martin agreed at Jack Roush’s urging to pilot the No. 6 car for a 19th and final season, as Roush did not feel he had a driver ready to replace Martin. “I love my team and Jack Roush too much to leave them with a total empty hole for 2006,” Martin said at the time. Since then, he’s fulfilled that commitment with maximum effort and steady determination… he’s not obligated to return for 2007 and beyond.

Ford Racing has expressed disappointment in Martin’s decision not to compete in a Ford F-150 full-time for 2007 in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series. In one sense, that’s understandable. Martin has dominated the series in his Roush prepared truck, winning five of the 10 races he’s entered to go along with five top-five and eight top-10 finishes on a limited schedule. Additionally, Martin, who owns a Ford dealership in his hometown, will be behind the wheel of Chevrolets at MB2. While no “official” contract was breached with Ford, the Blue Oval was understandably livid to hear of Martin’s defection; but in the changing landscape of NASCAR, who knows if the manufacturer will even by around by 2010? Clearly, Martin owes nothing to the automobile men in suits.

Once Mark came to the conclusion that he would prefer to still compete at the Cup level, but in a lesser capacity, he was somewhat limited as to his options. Although still welcome at Roush as the full time driver of his No. 6, Roush had nothing to offer him in the way of a part-time team or car. It is reported that he had discussions with Robert Yates Racing, who likewise could use him on a full-time basis, but were also not willing or able to accommodate his preferences for running part-time.

After making contact with MB2 owner Bobby Ginn (pronounced Ghin) an agreement that benefited both Martin and MB2 was reportedly finalized relatively quickly, within 10 days. Ginn, a wealthy Florida developer, had just six weeks earlier purchased controlling interest in the race team, and seems set on taking it to a higher level of competitiveness. With veterans Nemechek and Sterling Marlin already in his stable, he decided that a third team needed to be created to more adequately compete against the larger NASCAR superteams. Additionally, Smith, a driver that has driven in both the Busch and Craftsman Truck series, was identified by the organization as a prospective star of the future and hired by MB2. Smith and Martin will co-drive the No. 01 car, while Nemechek will move to the new No. 13 team. Not only does Martin’s agreement call for him to drive the limited number of races, but also serve as a mentor to Smith in the races he’s not a part of. Martin has expressed pleasure with the idea of helping in the development of the young driver, at a place where he would have a signigicantly higher amount of info and influence than he would have at Roush Racing.

Given Martin’s desire to still compete in Nextel Cup, albeit occasionally, he seems to have found the best possible fit. Unlike other NASCAR legends, such as Terry Labonte and Bill Elliott, that have continued to race part-time with part-time teams, experiencing little success, Martin will have a full-time car and team behind him when he straps into the seat next year. Of course, for Martin to be a contender for wins, MB2 (its name will change to Ginn Racing in 2007) will have to far exceed this year’s performance, with both Nemechek and Marlin spending more time fighting to stay in the Top 35 in owner points rather than competing for wins as 2006 winds to a close. But with a new and energetic owner in Ginn, Martin believes that on-track performances will improve significantly.

There is no reason to wish Martin anything but the best as he makes this move, obviously step one in an unknown number of steps toward eventual retirement. His departure from Roush Racing was amicable, and his 19 years there were filled with innumerable successes. Both Jack Roush and Mark Martin credit the other with making them a better person, and their profound respect for one another is still intact despite Martin bolting the Blue Oval for Chevrolet. If there’s anything not right in Martin leaving, it’s simply that he and Jack Roush could not leave together. Instead, Roush will continue to be a part of the sport every week, cheering Martin on from the pit box in any race he’s in, just like any driver for his own team. With a decision that was made professionally, amicably, and understandably, Mark Martin supporters should have no reason not to do the same in 2007.

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