NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Happy Hour: The Unluckiest Driver in Auto Racing?

Being the undeniable gentleman that he is, Mark Martin would probably take exception to my calling him the unluckiest driver in auto racing. He would counter that he has won 35 Cup races and 47 Busch races, driven for top-notch teams and pulled down an amazing five IROC championships. And how many drivers have finished in the top five in the standings 12 times?

But the only luck involved in any of those accomplishments is getting into an organization that can build a great car underneath him. Throughout his career, he has certainly proven himself worthy of that kind of luck.

Watching the Phoenix race, I couldn’t help but think that it was just another in a long line of disappointments for Martin that would have aggravated the hell out of most any mortal. Imagine if he had pulled down a victory in the No. 8 car before Dale Earnhardt Jr. nailed his first in the No. 88. For all of Martin’s achievements, for all of the respect he has earned from his fans and his peers, the big prizes so often elude him. And so often it happens through merciless twists of fate.

It’s not necessarily that he’s an unlucky fellow in life. It’s just that no other driver seems to compete so hard and come up on the short end so often – a seemingly meaningless penalty ultimately costing him a championship; a delayed yellow flag causing him to lose a Daytona 500 by inches – Lady Luck always seems to smile on someone other than Martin. It has to sting sometimes for a competitor of his mettle.

But Martin doesn’t complain. After Lucy once again pulls away the football at Phoenix, he states how proud he is to drive for the U.S. Army and how privileged he is to drive for a team whose namesake didn’t think was good enough.

He gets it. It’s racin’.

PUGLIESE: MARK MARTIN’S TEAM PLAYS IT SAFE AT PHOENIX

Auto racing, probably more than any other vocation, brutally teaches its participants to accept that life ain’t fair. If it was difficult for their fans to see Ryan Newman or Jeff Gordon finish last this year, one can only imagine what it’s like for their teams.

Countless people put in countless hours of work getting a car ready for a race. They build, test and compare notes. The crews spend countless hours practicing putting on tires and filling up cars with gas. The team members pack their bags and travel to tracks where they run countless laps trying to make cars go tenths of seconds faster. Dozens of people, hundreds of hours each week.

Everything is considered, right down to a guess of what the track temperature will be on race day and where the green-flag runs tend to be at that track. Thought goes into the qualifying setup, thought goes into the draft setup, the car qualifies (if everyone is lucky!), and then the crew stays up through most of the night changing the car to a race setup.

And sometimes after all of this hard work, five minutes into the race another driver loses control and clips the car, sending it around, into the wall and wrecked beyond repair for a 42nd-place finish. The team “earns” 37 points. After 20 laps of racing, barely enough to get to the second commercial break, they are loading the car back into the hauler.

For all of that obvious injustice, the only appropriate words are: it’s racin’.

There is nothing you can do about a sudden firestorm of bad luck.

If you’re looking for a deeper meaning to existence or for some theological basis for karma, you won’t find it at a racetrack. All you’ll find, if you spend enough time toiling at it as Martin has, is perhaps the toughness to deal with the cruelest truth of life. It ain’t fair. Bad things happen to good people.

This isn’t to suggest that hard work doesn’t pay off. Far from it. Only that nothing is guaranteed. And very often the difference between the champion and the first loser is an imperceptibly razor-thin slice of fortune.

A hot-dog wrapper stuck on a car’s grill, causing the engine to overheat. Falling short of a lugnut-torque requirement and forcing a pass-through penalty to go a lap down, costing the driver 20 spots. A caution flag thrown a split second too late resulting in a loss of a position. Being just short on gas and having to pit with five laps to go. From the tiniest of occurrences, races and championships are won and lost.

To win the big prizes in racing and in life, you need to work hard, look after all of the details, and prepare for everything right down to an educated guess on the weather. On top of all of that, perhaps most of all, you need the winds of fate blowing your way at the right time.

Martin is a four-time Cup runner-up. Gordon is a four-time Cup champion. Without doubt, Martin and his teams worked just as hard for the trophies as Gordon and his teams did. The two drivers’ disparate resumes could have been the reverse today by not a heck of a lot of luck.

That’s racin’. That’s life.

But it isn’t enough to make Mark Martin consider himself an unlucky guy.

Kurt’s Shorts After Four Hours In The Desert

  • It wasn’t lost on the Official Columnist of NASCAR that Gordon has visited 200 children through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That’s actually pretty amazing considering the schedule he keeps. 50 would have been impressive, but 200 shows someone going above and beyond, and it has to have a world of impact on the youths that he spends time with. Gordon makes a difference with his fame. Celebrities who don’t know how to handle the public eye should look at him.
  • I’m not one for drinking games, since they got me into so much trouble in my occasionally reckless youth, but if anyone out there is looking for a good one, try this: watch a NASCAR race on FOX, and take a drink every time D.W. praises the new car. Don’t do it if you have to drive.
  • The musical driver’s seat at Haas continues, with Ken Schrader taking over the wheel of the No. 70, replacing Johnny Sauter just one week after Sauter was called to replace Jeremy Mayfield. I understand after Talladega it may be Ward Burton‘s turn, and by 2009 sometime I’ll finally get my shot.
  • I just passed that wonderful milestone of turning 40, and my wonderful new wife (and no, she didn’t replace an old one) has given me eight laps driving a racecar at the Andretti-Gordon racing school for a gift. This ought to be good, I don’t know yet when or where I’ll be doing it, but I promise to share the experience with you the wonderful Frontstretch readers. Here’s hoping I don’t end up on Youtube.

Enjoy the off weekend y’all, see ya next week in ‘Bama.

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