Rocky Balboa. The Terminator. The Dismembered Knight from Monte Python. The paperboy from Better Off Dead that wants his $2. Mark Martin. All five keep getting up and coming back for more punishment.
It had seemed that following the fall announcement in 2004 that Martin would be done competing in the Nextel Cup Series at the end of 2005, that we had perhaps seen the last of the steely-eyed competitor with his trademark buzz cut, wrinkles and ready-to-explode temporal vein. Looking more like Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge than the current crop of “Teen-Beat” fresh-faced drivers, Martin along with friend and longtime competitor Rusty Wallace seemed to be heading off into the sunset together, even receiving rocking chairs at one point during their “farewell” tours in 2005. But the farewell was premature as Martin agreed to run full-time again in 2006 to fill a vacancy for longtime car owner and friend Jack Roush. As 2006 was winding down, Martin’s 2007 Truck ride with Roush Racing suddenly was no longer in play. Martin was announcing that he was going to return again in 2007, to run a limited schedule for Ginn Racing, driving the No. 01 U.S. Army Chevrolet.
Woah. Wait. What? Martin… driving a Chevrolet… not a… Ford? What Bill France Bunny Hole did I fall into? And wasn’t he going to retire like, TWO years ago?
To those who just read headlines, Martin was going to retire at the end of the 2005 season. To those who actually read the fine print and listen to what the man had to say, he said he was retiring from the grind of a full-time schedule after 2005. Apparently Mark doesn’t read his transcripts either, as he returned for an encore tour in 2006, which was the busiest year of his career, with 34 Nextel Cup races, 14 Craftsman Truck Series races, seven Busch Grand National races and four IROC races.
As a reward for returning one more year to help out BFF Jack Roush, he was told there was no room at the inn, and that there were no prospects of him running a limited schedule in 2007 driving for Roush Racing. The cap NASCAR had imposed on team-limits did not allow for a sixth car, even though the No. 60 No Fear Racing Fusion driven by Boris Said is a satellite Roush Team. Martin did have a full-time Truck Series gig in line at Roush for 2007, after making it his own personal playground by winning six of 14 events in 2006. Martin didn’t want to step down to the Truck Series just yet, but didn’t want to run the breakneck schedule of 34 races, the testing, media and sponsor commitments, as well as the associated physical and mental drain that a full Cup schedule demands.
Enter Bobby Ginn. Ginn who had recently purchased MB2 Motorsports, caught wind of Mark’s desire to compete in Nextel Cup, yet have some semblance of a normal life after 19 consecutive years at racing’s highest level. Within 72 hours, Martin had everything he had ever wanted from a guy who he barely knew.
During the Daytona 500, the No. 01 machine spent the first half of the race in the back and out of the trouble that Martin is usually drawn into, like a tornado to a trailer park. As out of place as he looked not driving the No. 6 car, he soon looked equally conspicuous leading the last lap of the Daytona 500. The race ended in a cloud of smoke, controversy, cars upside down and on fire (but caution-free), with Martin finishing second. Mark lost the race back to the line (the first time Cup cars had raced back to the line following an accident since 2003) by a little more than a bumper. An old-school finish under new-school green/white/checkered rules left more than a few people scratching their heads. While NASCAR had touted all week “THE RULES” by ejecting four crew chiefs and sending one of its most popular drivers to the rear of the field, the rulebook was thrown out the window as fast as Dave Blaney driving down pit road as Martin took the white flag.
While Martin would have been justified in being upset about the capricious enforcement of rules on the grandest stage in auto racing, he was simply thankful for being given the chance to compete for the win. For a man who just had the biggest race on the planet slip through his fingers, he seemed awfully content.
Something was up.
Then on Tuesday, there was a press release stating that Martin will run the July race in Daytona after coming oh-so-close to winning the Daytona 500. Seems logical, since that car is still in one piece, and it will be the last superspeedway race of the current car configuration until the fall of 2008. Then owner Bobby Ginn also mentions that the No. 01 car is his for the full season if Mark and the team get off to a strong start, and he wants to contend for the championship.
You can see where this is going.
Matt Kenseth, former protegee, Roush Racing teammate and longtime friend has a $200 bet going that Mark will stay in the car and run the entire season. Martin seemed more intrigued that Kenseth would dare part with money than the actual insinuation, but tried to downplay the accusation as saying that he hasn’t had that conversation with anyone, and that he’s still planning on sitting out for Bristol and Martinsville in April. But he’s also learned never to say “never.”
Not that finishing second in the Daytona 500 devastated him. He’s endured worse, losing a championship in 1990 after an inequitable fine over an innocuous spacer that was bolted instead of welded to the intake manifold. With the title in sight, leading with a few laps left at Atlanta in 1997, he suffered an engine failure, losing the championship to Jeff Gordon and then second place to Dale Jarrett. Having a career season in 1998 where he won seven races but still finished second to Gordon in points. Suffering a back injury so severe he had to be literally picked up by crewmen and shoveled into the driver’s seat for half of the 1999 season. Falling a mere 38 points short to Tony Stewart (25 of which were the result of a fine from a spring that was faulty from the manufacturer) in 2002. And having his father, stepmother and half-sister killed in a 1998 plane crash. Martin knows all about disappointment and how to deal with it.
But what the guy does NOT know how to do is quit.
Following a failed 1982 season where he ran his own team out of his pocket after his sponsor bailed on him and didn’t pay up, he was nearly bankrupt. He had to auction off EVERYTHING he owned and return back to the ASA series. It was during this time that Martin also endured some self-inflicted pain by way of a drinking problem. After reforming himself and rededicating his life, he began an intense bodybuilding program that continues to this day. He’s 48, looks like he’s 68, but is conditioned like he’s 28. Clint Bowyer could probably use his abs to get the grass stains out of his uniform from the sod that ended up in his lap Sunday night.
He is still prepared mentally and physically better than any other competitor.
He eventually made it back to Winston Cup in 1988, and drove the No. 6 car for almost 20 years, chasing a championship that seemed like it was just never meant to be. When he went to drive the No. 01 car, he said he had his best shot ever to win the Daytona 500, due to the previous performance of the pseudo-Hendrick car at restrictor-plate races.
But they have also run pretty good at downforce tracks too; Martin’s specialty.
With Ginn’s ownership of the team, they have been helped by a huge infusion of cash, resources and talent, as well as continued support from Hendrick Motorsports. The only thing that could slow the No. 01 car down Sunday was the red flag, and as fast as it was on the track, it was just as fast in the pits. The Ryan Pemberton led crew was the fastest on pit road all day, winning the Checkers/Rally’s Pit Crew Award, and getting Mark out in front on the final pit stop. In the 2006 Daytona 500, Martin led coming into the pits mid-race and exited mid-pack following a pit-stop miscue. While dominating the spring Phoenix race, another pit-stop error dropped him from the lead to the back of the pack. He had raced his way back up to third place as the race wound down, but his team miscalculated fuel mileage and he ran out of gas taking the white flag. Through the rest of the season, it seemed that if the crew chief was not overruled by the driver, they would always do the exact opposite of what they should have done, like pitting for four tires at Michigan under caution… while it was raining. The race was rained out about five minutes later.
He has a crew chief now that makes the right decisions, and a crew that gets him out first.
During the 2007 media tour, Martin repeatedly told anyone who would listen how happy he was with his current arrangement of driving a limited schedule for a new team and being able to coach new drivers. He has said on more than one occasion that he has everything he could ever ask for.
A win Sunday night would have been perfect for him. He has never won a Cup title, but a Daytona 500 trophy would have made for a nice consolation prize: Mark Martin – 2007 Daytona 500 champion. But now he’s second in points. He’s never left Daytona is this kind of shape before. He has a Chevrolet that was pretty quick in preseason testing and one of the most highly-regarded crew chiefs in the business. He also has an owner who is seemingly willing to give him whatever ever he wants, whenever he wants.
Everything he could ever ask for.
If he gets on a roll, it might be hard for him to not get in the car at Bristol, which is also the debut of the Car of Tomorrow. The CoT, which looks like the bastard child of the current car and a Craftsman Truck, is supposed to promote better racing with less emphasis on aerodynamics and more on set-up and driver input. Essentially, trying to make it behave more like a truck. Considering Martin posted six wins, three second-place finishes and only finished out of the top 10 twice in 14 starts in the Craftsman Truck Series last year, this could really put him in a pickle.
Or it could make it really easy for him.
Ginn Racing has started the No. 39 Cup team to provide a ride for Regan Smith should Mark decide not to abdicate the No. 01. Martin is suddenly the lead driver again with an upstart team, not lost in the shuffle of a five-car monstrosity. And he certainly isn’t a driver running laps down and using provisionals to make the field.
When I picture Mark Martin, I’m reminded of that prehistoric squirrel from Ice Age that’s constantly trying to crack open that gigantic acorn, only to have it slip away from him at the last second. He now has the pit crew, the crew chief and potentially the car he’s always wanted. With the Chase field expanded to 12 this year, his chances for making another run at the title are tantalizingly close.
I think Kenseth’s $200 is safe.