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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Matt McLaughlin Mouths Off: Is This Really Mark Martin’s Last Stand?

The jumbled pieces of this year’s silly season puzzle began falling together at Daytona this week, presenting a clearer picture of next year’s Cup lineup. It had already been announced that Casey Mears would be leaving Hendrick Motorsports and the No. 5 team next year. Rumors were rampant that the open seat in the No. 5 car might allow Tony Stewart to return to Chevrolet as part of a four-car super-team – the likes of which we haven’t seen since Carl Keikhafer ruled the roost in NASCAR racing.

Instead, it was announced this weekend that Mark Martin would take the wheel of that No. 5 car next year for one more Quixotic stab at adding a Cup championship to his already stellar racing resume.

Some folks, even some media sorts, reacted indignantly to the announcement. At least one scribe all but demanded Martin refund the dollars fans spent on “A Salute To You” merchandise issued after one of Martin’s many retirement announcements. My guess is those people wouldn’t understand the word “passion” if you laid a Funk and Wagnell dictionary opened to the correct page with the definition highlighted in yellow. I’m of a different mindset. As a middle-aged guy still running down his dreams here at this keyboard, out in the garage near nightly and out riding on the backroads of Chester County, weather permitting, I’m thrilled to see Martin taking another stab at his dream. I feel the sport will be better for Martin’s participation, win, lose or draw. While the focus in the Cup Series these days tends to focus on younger men like Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, demographics seem to indicate the NASCAR fanbase itself is graying (Any more questions why Just For Men and Viagra have become omnipotent sponsors of NASCAR broadcasting?) It’s nice for us older fans to have someone our age out there competing, and competing well, even as sponsors desperately scour the quarter midget tracks for the next good looking young upstart. While writing about this sport requires a certain degree of journalistic detachment, I’ll be upfront about this much… if Martin somehow succeeds against long odds in winning the 2009 Cup championship, we’re going to celebrate with kegs and fireworks here at Eyesore Acres.

I understand some folks hesitation about Martin continuing to compete even as he approaches his 50th birthday. Legendary drivers like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip stayed too long at the fair and greatly tarnished their racing reputations. If Martin was sticking with the game just for a paycheck (and running poorly these days pays better than winning did a decade ago), I’d question his continued career. But Martin is cut from a different bolt of cloth. In victory, he’s remained humble, and in defeat, he’s remained gracious. That’s a lesson some of Martin’s younger competitors would do well to study.

Once upon a time when the earth was still cooling, Martin was a young superstar winning track championships before he was legally able to drive on the roads. Martin made his first Cup start way back on April 5th, 1981 at North Wilkesboro. In just five starts that year, he won two poles and posted a pair of top-10 finishes highlighted by a third-place run at Martinsville that fall after having led 40 laps. Martin was 22 at the time. To put things in perspective, Busch wasn’t born until four years after Martin’s first Cup start.

PUGLIESE: WHY MARK MARTIN IS RETURNING TO CUP FULL-TIME

Martin’s first big break occurred in 1983 when a villainous conman by the blighted name of JD Stacy invited the young Arkansasan to compete full time on the Cup schedule that year at the wheel of the No. 2 car. Martin and his father shut down their own team, sold their cars and equipment and chased their dream to the Big City Bright Lights. Despite a third-place run at Darlington that spring, Martin found himself out a ride after just seven races. The easiest option would have been to return to Arkansas and take a job with his father’s successful trucking company while washing his hands of the whole Winston Cup dream, but that wasn’t Martin. He simply let it be known he was available to drive for any other team interested in him

Martin’s big break finally came in 1988 when NHRA and SCCA stalwart Jack Roush decided to go NASCAR racing. It was the start of one of the longest and most successful partnerships in that era, and Roush and Martin would become friends closer than most brothers… a friendship that has transcended their professional parting of ways. To this day, I’ve never heard Martin say a cross word about Roush, and never has Roush had anything negative to say about Martin. Together, the two of them celebrated their first Cup win at Rockingham late in the 1989 season.

1990 was the first of Martin’s “Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda” championships that got away. Martin and the No. 6 team were penalized 46 points at Richmond that season for an unapproved carb spacer after his win at Richmond. (Ironically, if that spacer had been welded in place rather bolted it would have been legal.) It was early in the season and only hindsight tells us how monumental that penalty would be. Still, Martin arrived at the penultimate race that season, Phoenix. Martin entered the event with a somewhat comfortable 45-point lead in the standings. Or a 45-point lead might have been somewhat comfortable were it not for the fact the late Dale Earnhardt was second in the standings. Questionable pit strategy consigned Martin to a 10th-place finish at Phoenix. Earnhardt led virtually flag to flag that day and headed to the season finale at Atlanta with a six-point lead over Martin.

Hindsight is 20/20. Jack Roush and his team were in their first championship battle. The Intimidator and his boys had stood in the flames of that sort of battle before. Ford was desperate to win that year’s drivers’ title. While Earnhardt played head games with Roush and Martin, the team panicked. Rather than relying on one of their own tried and true mounts, Martin drove a Robert Yates-prepared Ford at Atlanta. His team ran him out of gas twice. Earnhardt finished third. Martin soldiered on to a sixth-place finish and lost the title by 26 points.

Earnhardt was unusually gracious in victory, saying that Roush and Martin had forced him and his team to rise to a new level. The pain and disappointment was clearly evident on Martin’s face as he climbed from his car knowing he’d lost the battle. There was plenty of blame to go around, and Martin could easily have let loose on his crew chief or car owner. He could have bawled his eyes out and wrung his hands over the penalty at Richmond. Instead, Martin took a deep breath, and in a gracious statement said he was honored to have been beaten by the best in the business. While Martin would become Ford’s Knight in Shining Armor and Earnhardt was Chevy’s Shining Star, the two unlikely and dissimilar men would remain close friends with the highest degree of respect for one another.

1998 was another near miss for Martin. In most seasons, seven wins and 22 top-five finishes in 33 races would have been enough to earn a fellow a title. But in 1998, Jeff Gordon had an absolute dream season, winning 13 races and posting 26 top-five finishes in those 33 races. Once again Martin could only reflect on what might have been. In commenting on Gordon, he was effusive in his praise without a hint of bitterness or envy. In fact, when late that season Jack Roush publicly accused the No. 24 team of doctoring their tires to win all those races, Martin distanced himself from the allegations.

So in 2009, Mark Martin will make one more grab for the brass ring. Can a 50-year-old man win a Cup championship? I doubt age will be a factor. Martin’s workout ethic is legendary in the garage area. If Stewart, who is a decade younger, and Martin were to run a foot race down the length of pit road at Daytona, my money is on the old man. It’s somewhat ironic that Martin is leaving a team founded by the man who beat him for the 1990 title to compete for the organization that cost him the title in 1998. But it’s a given that, driving for Rick Hendrick, Martin will have some of the best equipment to roll off the truck every weekend. My guess is he’ll win some races and those wins be loudly applauded.

Even if Martin isn’t your favorite driver, and there’s dang few fans who dislike him, he’s got a legacy for the decades of class he’s shown in our sport. A championship might seem a long shot, but whether he finishes second in the points or 22nd, I am certain Martin will continue to display class, determination and humility chasing his dream. That’s a lesson that ought to savored, not only by his younger competitors but by his older fans. He is certainly someone we can learn from. When I was 23, a 50-year-old man was ancient. As I stare down the barrels of the big five-oh, (and I don’t mean the Holley carb atop a FOX-bodied Mustang), if I can checkout of this mortal plain showing the class, dignity and determination of Mark Martin, it will have been a life well lived. Go get ’em, Old Man!