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Voice of Vito: Into the Flood Again – Why Mark Martin Came Back to Full-Time Cup Racing

I have never made any bones about it – I am a lifelong Alice In Chains fan. Hands down, they’re my favorite band… ever, quite possibly the most underrated yet often-imitated Seattle supergroup from the early 1990s. This was back during a time when music was worth listening to – songs that featured instruments and not drum machines, lyrics that extended beyond such meaningful topics as Cadillac Escalades, rims, champagne, women of questionable morals, bling, and even more rims. One of their signature songs was featured on the soundtrack of the 1991 motion picture, Singles – the title of the track is called, “Would?” and the chorus of which stated:

Into the flood again
Same old trip it was back then
So I made a big mistake
Try to see it once my way

With the announcement this past Friday at Daytona that Mark Martin would be returning to full-time Cup competition in 2009, that song and verse struck a chord with me.

By now, most are familiar with Martin’s “retirement” story, while others just remain confused. In the fall of 2004, Martin sat with then-car owner Jack Roush and announced that 2005 would be his swan song in Cup competition – one they would name the “Salute To You Tour” in honor of the driver’s legions of fans who’ve supported him through the years. Run in conjunction with longtime rival and friend Rusty Wallace’s “Rusty’s Last Call,” the two would mark their final seasons together in the highest form of motorsports in North America. There was one glaring difference in their intentions, however: Rusty was hanging up his helmet for good, while Martin was simply pulling back from a full-time schedule, making it clear that he was not retiring from competition altogether.

For better or worse, Martin was then forced to reconsider his plans halfway through his Victory Lap in 2005. An unexpected driver shakeup meant Martin was asked to come to the rescue of friend and car owner Jack Roush – remaining in the seat of the No. 6 Ford that had been the cornerstone for Roush Racing for nearly two decades – through the 2006 season. While making one last go at it, he would also run a partial schedule in the Craftsman Truck Series, which was to be his new home after Cup racing.

But in 14 starts in the Truck Series that season while preparing for his full-time effort, Martin laid waste to the competition, winning or finishing second nine times. As the season – and his success – unfolded, one thing was evident over the course of that experiment; Martin needed a challenge greater than one presented there, just not one that meant abandoning his wishes of being a champion father and husband.

As such, Martin decided to move on from Roush, as a part-time Cup Series ride was not in the cards for a team already running five full-time cars on the track. Instead, he moved on to what was the Ginn Racing operation in 2007 as a part-time driver and mentor, driving a 26-race schedule at the tracks of his choosing. Following the acquisition of Ginn Racing by Dale Earnhardt Inc. in the summer of 2007, Martin continued in a similar role, one that he hoped to continue for the foreseeable future.

But plans have changed for Martin once again; and now, almost four years removed from his original announcement to pull back from a full-time schedule, Martin and Rick Hendrick announced on Friday that he would once again come back to the 40-plus week, 36-race grind, driving the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet for the 2009 season before returning to a mentor role and limited schedule in 2010.

Those who do not heed the axiom “words mean things” contend that Martin was to have retired long ago. In fact, many have repeatedly misinterpreted and misrepresented Martin’s statements and intentions as a commitment to stay at home on Sunday, when all he really wanted was a break from the demands brought about by the breakneck pace of a 10-month season. Indeed, when it was finally time for him to take a week off at Bristol in early 2007 – just as he happened to be leading the point standings for the first time since the fall of 2002 – Martin stepped out as promised to the chagrin of many who questioned if he was committing career suicide.

It was a break that for Martin was sorely needed – and one that was taken without so much as a second thought.

“The two years that I’ve spent on this limited schedule were 100% necessary,” he said this past weekend at Daytona. “There’s no way I would have accepted this deal in 2007. No way. These last two years have given me a chance to catch my breath and spend quality time with my family, and sort of reflect on what’s important and what I want to do.”

It was a break from what had become too much to bear – even for a guy who wakes up at 5:30 a.m. every day to pound steel for an hour. The list of battle wounds told the tale; a spinal fusion, a busted knee that occasionally still hobbled him, a series of on-track heartaches, and a sudden betrayal – at least that’s how it looked – when he was told in 2006 that there was no room for him at Roush Racing any longer, following his decision to not go Truck Series racing full-time. There was all that to contend with – as well as the small matter of being apart from his family for the better part of a lifetime.

The tragic loss of Martin’s father, stepmother and sister in a plane crash in 1998, as well as a separate fatal accident involving his nephew, weighed heavy and kept things in perspective for him. In the meantime, the part-time schedule and break from competing within Ford’s flagship racing empire also allowed Martin the chance to drive for Hendrick in a Nationwide Series race at Darlington in 2007. He finished second in that event, and possibly would have won had he not been held up for several laps battling Carl Edwards for position. While it was an impressive drive for his first outing in an unfamiliar car, it helped set the stage for Friday’s announcement in Daytona Beach. Martin will be reunited with Alan Gustafson, the crew chief from that very first race in which he realized a sudden special chemistry that hasn’t been forgotten since.

So, just how important is it for Martin to have been given an opportunity to drive on the same team with Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.? What could possibly motivate a driver to return to the fray from which he so desperately needed to walk away from just two and a half years prior?

“I told [my wife] Arlene when we talked about this, I’m pretty sure that the last breath I took on my deathbed would be, ‘I should have drove Rick’s car when I had the chance.’” he explained Friday. “The championship was not a consideration in taking this deal. Being sure that I was getting into something that had a chance to win meant everything.”

“He continues to impress me. It seems like the older he gets, the better he gets,” responded future teammate Gordon following the announcement. “He’s unbelievable, and I can’t wait to see what he brings to our organization.”

The performance on the racetrack backs up Gordon’s recent praise. Buoyed by near-miss wins in the 2007 Daytona 500 – note that the field did not race back to the caution flag in the Coke Zero 400 last Saturday night – and 2008 disappointments at Phoenix and Richmond, it’s clear the talent and determination has not diminished for Martin at 49. But what had was the ability to contend for the win in equipment not always up to the level of a team like Hendrick Motorsports – and that’s what enticed this veteran to make one, final move.

So, what does a Seattle metal band have to do with a stock car driver from Batesville, Arkansas? During the last year, Alice In Chains came out of self-imposed exile following the passing of lead vocalist Layne Staley in April 2002. To great fanfare, the band returned to touring and packed shows with glowing reviews, continuing to sound as if you were listening to their old albums – never missing a beat. And as Martin gears up for one more full-time run – with winning and having fun taking precedent over a focused championship pursuit – skeptics would be well served to put themselves in Martin’s Nomex footies for a moment and consider it from his perspective. For when you have competed at this level for such a long period of time and are faced with the prospect of driving for the premier organization in NASCAR, in the end a decision to return to the fray isn’t too terribly conflicting. It also brings to mind the closing lyric in “Would?” that I had referenced earlier:

“If I would, could you?”

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