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Voice of Vito: Mark Martin: He’s Bad, He’s Nationwide – The All-Time Wins Leader Continues to Make an Impact in Semi-Retirement

When asked where his favorite vacation destination is, Mark Martin will list Las Vegas as his place of refuge. No, it is not because he enjoys gambling, the nightlife, or the seedy underbelly of society. For the driver who calls 11:00 p.m. way past his bedtime, Martin enjoys Vegas because they have the best video game arcades anywhere in the country. That’s right; the same 49-year-old who likes rap music, Bernie Mac and Dave Chappelle also enjoys playing video games with his son Matt while staying on the strip.

But the arcade isn’t the only thing drawing Martin to Sin City. The driver who Carl Edwards once glossed “crazy old man” in a Nextel commercial a couple of years back also seems to do pretty well at the racetrack they have out there, too.

Martin scored his record-extending 48th career Nationwide Series victory in Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300, his third win in five starts in Nationwide competition at Las Vegas. But this one wasn’t the way Martin wanted to win it. A late-race wreck triggered by his front bumper was what opened the door for his No. 5 Delphi Chevrolet to make the trek to victory lane, while ending the days of Edwards and Brad Keselowski in the process. The site of his previous Nationwide Series win in 2005 ironically came under similar circumstances – a late-race spin by Edwards removed him from the equation, setting Martin up to take the checkered flag. Back then, Edwards was also driving a No. 60 Roush Ford – the car that Martin used in staking his claim to what once was the Busch Grand National Series.

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But Martin’s win Saturday should not be remembered for the short-term controversy it sparked; instead, it should serve as a reminder of the positive impact he’s made on a series filled with up-and-comers. That influence is critical when it comes to the argument that’s often raised as to whether or not Cup Series regulars should be allowed to compete in what’s always been considered the minor leagues of stock car racing. For long before that was even an issue, there once was a time when Cup drivers who participated in the preliminary Saturday events were welcomed with open arms and wallets; and one of the reasons was because of drivers like Martin, who helped add legitimacy to the series while imparting his valuable racing knowledge on the rest of the field competing against him.

After landing his Roush Racing Cup ride in 1988, Martin would continue to run Nationwide races with longtime friend and Arkansas native Bill Davis; starting in 1992, he began running what would become his familiar black No. 60 Winn Dixie Ford Thunderbirds. Back then, in what many consider to be the heyday of modern-day NASCAR, there were rarely 43-car fields for the Busch Series; 36 cars typically started the show, and it was not uncommon for there to be a short field. As such, NASCAR needed to help fill the stands as well as the starting grid; so when Cup drivers would show up, it was always seen as an added benefit from a promotional perspective, while helping to spice up competition in the process.

But Martin did far more than win races. During his tenure in the Nationwide Series, some of the best in Cup have had a chance to learn from the all-time win leader as they were coming of age: Jeff Gordon, Bobby Labonte, Matt Kenseth, Tony Stewart and Jeff Burton all have credited Martin with helping them develop as they worked their way through the ranks. With his guidance, these drivers matured with ease, eventually rising to the level where they are at today.

One driver who was helped tremendously by this coaching and mentoring of sorts was Stewart. As Martin pulled back from the Nationwide Series following the 2000 season, Stewart lamented his absence, calling it one of the greatest losses for the junior series. With his occasional presence, younger drivers had a figure to emulate on as well as off the track, as Martin has always been one of the most respected and trusted veterans in all of motorsports.

Whenever Martin participates, drivers have an opportunity to learn from the best; and more importantly, they are grateful to have him there. Back when Martin was routinely pulling double duty on the weekends, his presence in Saturday competition was seen as a boon for those eventually looking to step up to Cup; youngsters would have a chance to match skills and wits with a top-tier driver in more comparable equipment. Stock car veterans didn’t come to race in the series back then due to sponsorship concerns or need for extra track time. They simply did it for their love of racing – and with all teams on a more equal playing field during the ’80s and ’90s, the competition level between Nationwide and Cup drivers was far more balanced.

But that didn’t stop Martin from succeeding even during a time period when Cup drivers were often the underdog. During the Busch races of the 1990s, one would regularly see an inexperienced driver come flying up through the field to catch Martin, who was simply pacing himself, conserving his equipment. As the youngster closed in, Martin would move over to let the faster car by on the outside. The announcers would chuckle and remark, “How long until you think Mark passes him back?” Sure enough, 10 laps later, here would come that black No. 60 car back around to retake the position.

Then, you’d hear the call over the radio from the young man’s crew chief: “Follow that No. 60 car.”

Michael Waltrip often recalls stories of Martin being the first car out for practice on a Friday morning. The track would usually be covered in a thin layer of dust and dew, with the No. 60 the first on the track, blowing off the debris in the corners, running three-tenths to half a second quicker than anyone else. If you wanted to learn how to keep the fenders on it, save your tires, stay out of trouble and bring it home in one piece, you’d do well to heed the message and “follow that No. 60 car.” When Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran his first full season of Busch Grand National competition in 1998, his father would tell him – to the surprise of no one – that, “If you want to see how you’re supposed to get around here, follow that No. 60 car.”

While it was certainly out of sorts seeing Martin win a race with the assistance of his bumper this past weekend, the reaction to it said volumes more about the man than simply the outcome itself. Martin was on the radio apologizing after the wreck happened, and before mentioning any sponsors in victory lane, took responsibility for the incident that took out not only former and current teammates, but a trusted friend. Edwards himself was slow to be mad, but quick to give his former Roush Racing teammate the benefit of the doubt. As my dad is fond of saying, Edwards took the laidback attitude that “he probably couldn’t see over the steering wheel.” Although that is kind of funny – since my dad and Martin are the same height – what you won’t hear is anyone questioning the integrity or ulterior motives behind the move. The wreck was human error on Martin’s part; not a deliberate ploy or dirty driving.

That is not always something that can be said of similar incidents in either the Nationwide or the Sprint Cup Series. Many drivers today think nothing of moving another car out of the way should they be held up; but the surprise surrounding Martin’s late-race mistake serves as further proof that shoving has never been his style. Three times, Martin had to come up through the field on Saturday, the result of some slow pit work and a bum tire. As he made his way to the front, there were no marks on his car from roughing up slower cars or uncooperative traffic; while he put his team and car in a position to win, he was showing the rookies and veterans alike how to get it done, and how to do it the right way. Unfortunately, Edwards just happened to catch a piece of enthusiasm gone unchecked – even after 20 years of Grand National competition.

Crazy old man.

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