This is a story about two men’s historic rise and fall from grace.
As Mark Martin took the checkered flag Saturday night, the desert night lit up with thousands of smiling faces. Sentimentality was in the air again at Phoenix International Raceway, a mere two minutes after a 50-year-old won his first race since ‘05 and two years after Jeff Gordon tied the late, great Earnhardt name with his 76th career win. History has been no stranger to the desert as of late; but this time around, the fans stood respectful of Martin’s seniority rather than rueful for Gordon’s claim to historic fame. For that one, beer cans were thrown with perfect aim right at the No. 24 Chevy, a sign of fans’ loyalty to another would-be 50-something that drove so many towards an interest in the sport.
Hundreds of feet away from the crowd, the son now charged with carrying that famous name’s tradition sat buried in the sand of a 31st-place finish in the desert. There would be no celebration for Dale Earnhardt Jr. on this night, not for his worst finish here since blowing an engine in November 2007. Moments removed from bumping Casey Mears in frustration on the cooldown lap, Earnhardt was simply trying to keep his cool, pay his respects to Martin… and get the hell out.
Of course, Hendrick’s newest addition had no such plans to leave. Around him, the fans cheered wildly as he did a backwards victory lap in tribute to the fallen Alan Kulwicki, his friend killed in a horrifying plane crash in 1993. Unifying the crowd with his simple gesture, Martin had stolen the title of “Most Popular” from his teammate… if only for a fleeting second.
But that snapshot spoke volumes as to where each man was headed. Martin, through the course of a dominating performance, had turned back the clock. Earnhardt, left to watch, was left to imagine his season turning backwards at precisely the same speed at which his car wrecked into the wall – with the weight of a winless season attached.
It seemed appropriate on this night that Earnhardt and Martin were teammates out of the same shop; after all, isn’t one man’s rise another one’s road to ruin? In any organization, there’s a good, better, best scenario even when all the teams are running well; but with Martin’s signature victory, Earnhardt doesn’t even qualify for that top three. Just 19th in the season standings, he’s the lone winless driver in a four-car organization and the only one yet to score a top five finish this season.
Phoenix was supposed to be the start of a turnaround, the first leg of a critical three-race swing for the No. 88. PIR, Talladega, and Richmond make up 10 of his 18 career victories, the perfect places to reroute a season that’s started so badly off track. Three solid finishes now, and everyone’s done debating Earnhardt’s Mental Mistake Tour 2009. But falter… and falling 100-plus points outside the Chase is a much tougher hill to climb at places like Loudon, Pocono, and Sonoma where he’s historically weak.
By comparison, the desert has always seemed to bring out the best in NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, a place where he owns more wins than his old man (2 to 1) while fitting right in with the laid-back atmosphere of the West that defines his personality. Indeed, one of Earnhardt’s highlights of 2008 was becoming involved in a duel for the win here last April with none other than… Martin. It was a far different scenario then for both, as pressure was merely a word applied to drivers other than themselves. Earnhardt was still fresh behind the ears working for Hendrick, exceeding expectations during a grace period that was expected to be a far rougher transition. In the meantime, Martin was enjoying the pleasure provided by the freedom of a part-time schedule. True, he was the driver tasked with the near-impossible assignment of keeping the Earnhardt name relevant in Dale Jr.’s former ride, the No. 8. But it’s far easier to face the music when you take the opportunity knowing those are shoes you’ll never fill.
Back then, Martin was fighting a good fight on one of the former DEI’s better days, taking second-tier equipment and giving it the bright shine of respectability. Fending off Earnhardt over the race’s final segment, Martin came within a hair of giving that old team a win before its former driver had visited victory lane in his new one. Poor fuel mileage was what robbed the team of a top finish that day, forcing both Martin and Earnhardt to make a last-minute stop while handing the win to Jimmie Johnson. It was a questionable call for Martin’s team to make at the time – why not go for the win with the championship a moot point? – but it was a choice never questioned by the veteran, at least in public.
“It is a privilege to drive for these guys,” he said back then, never letting frustration be the better part of valor. “I want them to keep their chins up, because we can win some of these races.”
They never did. But when’s the last time you heard that from Earnhardt?
One year later, it’s now his turn to suffer through a bad choice atop the pit box, the wrong decision by a crew chief struggling to get anything right these days. Earnhardt had already suffered through a pit-stop problem, a loose lugnut necessitating an extra stop that mired him back around 30th for much of the race’s first 150 laps. So when a caution flag came out on lap 167 – just 15 laps after Earnhardt’s last stop – crew chief Tony Eury Jr. chose to keep the No. 88 out on the racetrack, giving them the lead while Martin and others dove down pit road for fresh rubber.
Initially, it looked like a brilliant move, showcasing above anything else Earnhardt hasn’t forgotten how to drive. Taking off on the ensuing restart, he built a four-and-a-half second lead on the field at one point. But a race filled with some early cautions suddenly took on a green-flag look, leaving Earnhardt forced to pit long before everyone else up front. Armed with older tires that hampered his handling, he dropped like a rock through the field over the final 75 laps of the race, going from the lead to 17th before Mears mercifully tapped him into the wall to all but end his night. Despite leading 63 laps, that tap proved the final insult on a night that could have easily led towards redemption.
“We were very loose at the end,” he said afterwards in his shortest set of post-race quotes in some time. “It felt good to lead some laps.”
But on this night, it was Martin’s turn to lead the final one, cycling back to the top with a win that had eluded him for so long. While both he and Earnhardt had strong cars, it was the veteran of the No. 5 who guessed correctly, every time, on the adjustments needed from day into night. It was the crew chief who calls working for Martin a dream job making all the right moves – rather than the one living a nightmare getting the chance to redeem himself. Indeed, Eury sits all alone now at HMS with the unpleasant stink of a season slump surrounding him. Of the two teams that endured a nightmarish start to the 2009 season, just one now remains left in an seemingly inescapable hole.
“I want to congratulate [Mark],” Earnhardt said before scurrying off to regroup. “That team was awesome tonight.”
He made no mention about his own.
And as Junior gave his quotes and settled into the background, leaving Martin to revel in victory, you couldn’t help but think of a certain number missing from the field this weekend. Earnhardt’s former ride, the No. 8, has been shut down until further notice after sponsorship never materialized for young rookie Aric Almirola. Gone with it is Earnhardt’s link to his past, the family name and team he will likely never own after a seemingly permanent rift with stepmother Theresa over the company. That divorce led to a nightmarish 2007 for Junior, one in which he missed the Chase and endured a winless season that forced him to look elsewhere in achieving his goal of winning a title.
But in hindsight, pursuit of those goals seems to have contradicted a firm emphasis on family and friends that’s defined Junior’s life. To make this choice, Earnhardt had to leave the comfort of familiarity behind, becoming a cog in the corporate wheel for a company with other superstars to share his spotlight. Somewhere along the way, he went from number one driver on the totem pole to number one on the list of underachievers, going from victim to perpetrator on a team that’s been similar in performance to his old one at DEI – only with 10 times more pressure attached. It’s like a kid choosing to transfer to a better private school far away from home, only to figure out in the middle of sophomore year both his grades and social life were better in the hometown he left behind.
Faced with a similar career choice – have fun with reduced expectations or tackle the pressure of top-tier equipment – Martin chose the tough road, too. Leaving DEI and hooking up with Hendrick for one last chance at a title, the pressure of holding an AARP card while competing against men half his age could have overwhelmed him. Instead, he’s taken it all in stride, never losing confidence in his team despite three problems in four races which nearly took them out of the Top 35 in owner points. Most importantly, the smile has never quite left his face, a far cry from a look on Earnhardt’s that leaves you wondering if being at the track is as much fun for him as it used to be.
“I was really happy in 2008, and have been even more happy in 2009,” he exclaimed in a jubilant post-race press conference. “I didn’t think that was possible [considering] I am in a different league stress level compared to last year. But working with these guys puts so much more fun in the factor that it overcomes the stress level of measuring up to [the expectations I have for] myself.”
And so it goes; two men, two choices, two vastly different outcomes even though their cars are made five feet apart. But at this point, there’s no longer a question as to whether Martin made the right choice to come to HMS.
Now, we’re simply left to wonder whether Earnhardt made the wrong one.