As the dust settled in one of the most exciting Daytona 500s in recent memory, all I could think of was Peanuts. Not the Planters kind, rather, the kind you see in the newspaper every day. You see, in one of the comic’s most famous running gags, Charlie Brown, the lovable good guy, is convinced to go kick the football by his conniving friend Lucy. Each time, Lucy convinces Charlie Brown he’s going to kick the football halfway across the world; yet every time he runs up to kick it, she pulls it away and watches him fall flat on his face. Laughing as he falls, she comes up with a new saying every time to explain to Charlie Brown how gullible he really is.
Charlie Brown, meet Mark Martin. Lucy, meet Kevin Harvick. The Daytona 500 trophy, now, that would be the football Harvick stole away. With one surprising last-lap pass that shot Harvick to Victory Lane and Martin into gut-wrenching pain, the whole community watched the whole missed football kick unfold in a state of shock; hours after the win, it’s still not sure how to react.
Want to know how far-reaching Martin’s two-thousandths of a second disappointment has reverberated around the garage area? Even Harvick’s own teammate wished things could have ended differently.
“I am really, really happy for Kevin Harvick and that whole team and everyone at RCR, but as happy as I am for him and his team, I am disappointed for Mark Martin,” said Jeff Burton. “He is a great guy that deserves to win the Daytona 500. He is a class act, one of the greatest drivers the sport has ever seen.”
Of course, being a class act doesn’t win you any trophies, otherwise men like Dan Marino, Tony Gwynn and John Stockton would have dozens of them sitting on their mantelpieces. It does make Sunday’s series of events more difficult to describe for even the most unbiased of reporters, especially since Martin’s Daytona story leading up to this year’s 500 was also less than spectacular, to say the least. Drivers like Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip were cursed at this speedway; Martin’s been driving with a black cat in the passenger seat and an anchor attached to the rear. It took until his sixth start in the Great American Race for Martin to even be running at the finish, and in 22 total 500 appearances he’d accumulated 12 finishes outside the top 20. Leading only 157 laps during that span, Martin’s only real shot at the win came in 2000, where he paced the field for 65 circuits before falling behind late due to pit strategy, eventually losing to Dale Jarrett on his way to a fifth-place finish.
But as the laps counted down on Sunday, there was NASCAR’s perennial runner-up finisher, watching contenders fall like a deck of cards around him as the stage became set for the 48-year-old to pull a fantastic upset in his 23rd crack at the 500. With 48 laps to go, the cars that were the class of the field in Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch took themselves out, leaving the race wide open and the list of new contenders a mile long. Sensing blood, Martin’s team came up with a great pit strategy; during a subsequent caution for Jimmie Johnson‘s wreck, they decided to take on just two tires, putting Martin’s No. 01 Chevrolet out front in clean air. Behind him, two Roush Fenway Racing drivers in Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle assumed second and third; although they were no longer teammates, they might as well have been, as they did everything possible to block Martin’s closest pursuers as a thank you for Martin’s years of service to them.
“Mark was my mentor, obviously I wanted him to win,” claimed Kenseth after the race.
But as the laps wound down, Kenseth and Biffle fell behind but Martin stayed ahead, outlasting all challengers and several wrecks behind him en route to keeping the lead up to a no-holds-barred, green-white-checkered finish. Halfway through the last lap, Martin finally saw the football in sight; blocking the first four challengers behind him on the inside line, he appeared poised to finally break his reputation of being the perpetual runner-up. But that’s when Harvick, running outside the top five when the final lap began, got himself a push of a lifetime, courtesy of a Kenseth bump draft. Everyone knows what happened after that.
“I knew we were going to be the bad guy there with Mark leading, but I held the pedal down and hoped for the best,” said Harvick.
Martin’s only hope as Harvick came off turn 4 was in the hope of a caution flag, as cars started wrecking behind him while his nose still lied slightly ahead of Harvick’s No. 29 Chevrolet. But in a week where NASCAR has tried desperately to do the right thing, they let the car go green to the finish instead of throwing the caution and freezing the field; as a result, Martin found himself shut out at Daytona for yet another year. Ironically, NASCAR’s cleanest driver became the victim of the sport’s attempt to start cleaning itself up.
“Of course, that’s NASCAR’s discretion is to decide when to end the race, and they kept it going for probably longer – certainly longer then they could have for the best result for Mark,” claimed Martin’s former car owner, Jack Roush, the one who’s seen him suffer here more than anyone. “But they wanted to see it go as long as it could and throwing a caution wouldn’t have affected the number of cars that had been wrecked and what happened at the end, so I can see NASCAR’s position. But there was a dynamic that was taking place, and Mark was a loser again with regard to when they did throw the caution.”
As for Martin, he showed style and grace, hiding his obvious disappointment with a dose of humility.
“I just want to thank Bobby Ginn and especially the U.S. Army team,” he said. “I’m so proud to be a part of this team. They gave me a chance at the Daytona 500, and that’s all I ever asked. I really hate that I let them down.”
“We were just doing everything we could, it was the Daytona 500, man. If they would have thrown the yellow, it was in our fingers, But it just wasn’t meant to be. I didn’t get the job done.”
Well, it wasn’t so much that you didn’t get the job done, Mark, Lucy convinced you the football was there for the kicking, again. It’s not your fault she was cruel enough to pick it up at the last minute.
Still, Martin will press on. He’ll no doubt back next year to try again to earn the trophy that has long eluded him, the best one he can win now that his championship days are behind him.
I just don’t have the heart to tell him Charlie Brown never did get to kick that football. Some things in life just aren’t fair.