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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Yellow Stripe: 50 is the New 20 for Mark Martin

The NASCAR season is brutally long, and with 36 races across 10 months, you know that from time to time you’re going to see an absolute stinker of a race. But from the moment I clicked on the broadcast on Saturday night, I just had a feeling it was going to be a fantastic evening – and so it proved to be.

The weather was great, the invocation by Phoenix International Raceway chaplain Ken Bowers was crisp and to the point; the anthem was sung with gusto by Kate and Kacey (whoever they might be, I have no clue, but they sure can sing), and the flyover by four F-16s from the 52nd Fighter Squadron from Luke Air Force base was flawless. And when Subway-garbed race marshal Michael Strahan belted out the command with the sort of passion he used to reserve for sacking opposition QBs, Phoenix was all set up for a picture-perfect evening and a storybook ending courtesy of the first 50-year-old (and fourth all-time) to win a Cup race since Morgan Shepherd at Atlanta in 1993.

When I took a job at Nextel’s advertising agency back in September 2005, working on their NASCAR sponsorship team, the first advertising campaign I worked on was a series of tribute ads to the two retiring drivers – Rusty Wallace and the inimitable Mark Martin. That was four years ago, and while Rusty is happy to fulfill his broadcasting role and shepherd the progress of his son, it’s not been quite the same for the veteran driver from Batesville, Ark. Tempted out of retirement to wheel the No. 6 car for Jack Roush for one final year in 2006, Martin parlayed his delayed retirement into a partial schedule in 2007 (for Bobby Ginn) and then 2008 (Dale Earnhardt Inc.) in the No. 8 car vacated by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Then, midway through last season the announcement came that Martin was to replace Casey Mears and pilot the No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports and take one last, glorious crack at the full schedule. Now, we hear talk of another “final” year in 2010; nothing is finalized, but I wouldn’t bet against Martin firing his engine down in Daytona next February.

But no need to get carried away just yet; let’s get back to this year first. No question, Martin had a horrible start to the season, one of the worst in his 20-plus years driving stock cars. A bad pit call cost him a higher finish at Daytona, his usually metronomic Hendrick engines blew at both Fontana and Vegas, and a right-front blowing at Atlanta, after starting from the pole, saw Martin exit the 1.5-mile Georgia track perilously close to the Top-35 cutoff. But after a red-hot streak: seventh at Bristol, sixth at Martinsville, seventh in Texas and, of course, the win on Saturday, Martin is now just nine points shy of the final Chase berth. In short, he’s baaaaaaack… and in a big way.

And just in case you were in any doubt about Martin’s impact on the sport, you only had to see the stream of former teammates, current teammates, and others including Jack Roush who made their way to join the joyous throng in victory lane. I’d even go as far as to say the Jimmie-Robot looked happier than he did when he won at Martinsville a couple races ago. The level of respect was perhaps best expressed by Tony Stewart who, let’s not forget, is chasing a maiden win for Stewart-Haas Racing: “I don’t think there’s anybody that’s not a Mark Martin fan. It was an awesome night for our organization and an awesome night for Mark. Nobody works harder to stay in shape, to be good and be fit and to be ready to go than Mark does. And when you see somebody that works that hard at it, you like to see the results come for him, too.”

It was also interesting to watch Martin’s post-race interview, once he stepped from the car and was showered by all manner of liquids. He referenced the late Tim Richmond, praised Rick Hendrick “for making dreams come true,” thanked his wife and sponsors, and even found time to plug his Chevrolet, saying that he had “monster horsepower under the hood and plenty of gas in the tank.” It was a well-rounded, well-thought out few minutes in front of a camera that made you forget he just spent 500 kilometers inside of a racecar.

And it looked like he enjoyed every second.

Back in January of 2006, I was lucky enough to shoot an ad with Martin and Carl Edwards where a “fake Mark Martin” does a series of gymnastic backflips in an effort to outdo Cousin Carl’s celebrated victory backflip. It was a dreary, overcast, rainy day… so there was plenty of down time between takes. Martin could easily have returned to his assigned trailer, but instead regaled the crew and enthralled the clients with a barrage of stories that ranged from his love of rap music to his love for getting involved in the commercials. It’s often the case that when you meet a sporting legend, the reality is significantly more disappointing than what you might have hoped. With Martin, the reverse is true. He’s absolutely legit, the very definition of what you see is what you get. While he’s not my favorite driver in this series, he’s someone I always hope will run well.

BOWLES: MARTIN’S RISE LEAVES EARNHARDT FLAT ON HIS FACE

So, after the euphoria dies down, what’s next for Martin? First things first: it will be a place in the coveted top 12. He should secure that over the next few weeks, and it’s my bet that once he’s in the field, he won’t drop out before Richmond. But can he take that next step and win the championship that’s eluded him for so long? The final 10 races of the season are still a lottery, as Kyle Busch proved last season, and the road to the title still goes through his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson. But if Martin can continue to run like he has of late, why shouldn’t he finally (Finally with a capital F) win the big prize?

No question, there’s a lot of things going in his favor right now. In the plus column is his respected crew chief Alan Gustafson, who grew up idolizing Martin and collecting all the diecasts and hero cards he could. Gustafson leads one of the most reliable pit crews on pit road – one that hasn’t been caught up in loose lugnuts and slow stops plaguing other teams this season. Add in the awesome horsepower and collected resources of the most successful team in the sport today, Hendrick Motorsports, and you’d think there’s potential to put together a title run. But after so many near misses (four second-place finishes in the overall standings) combined with the driver’s age (50), logic suggests a Martin Sprint Cup title is a long-shot.

But listening to his words in victory lane, you can’t help but wonder if this time, maybe, just maybe things will be different. “The thought went through my mind – 1989 with Jack Roush – when I got my first win at Rockingham, I said, ‘My life is fulfilled,” he said. “I thought about saying that again tonight, but I’ll stop short of that.”

In other words, there’s much more to come, much more.

Three quick points to finish up this week:

Go Sam Go!

A huge “atta boy” to Sam Hornish Jr. on recording a ninth-place finish, his first top 10 and by definition his highest ever finish in 44 attempts at the Sprint Cup level. It’s not unfair to say the three-time IRL champion has struggled massively in stock car racing. In 2008, Hornish recorded just four top-20 finishes, with a highest finish of just 13th place in the Coke 600 at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. One year later, he has three top-20 efforts already, with the high-water mark coming at Phoenix this past Saturday. At times, Hornish has looked so overmatched at the Cup level you almost felt sorry for him. Time will tell whether this was the weekend the Defiance, Ohio native finally “got it;” but for now, the ninth-place run in the desert must have felt as good as winning the Indy 500 (well, almost).

Why does he always have to be the story?

I enjoyed the post-race incident between Dale Junior and Mears on the cool-down lap – boys will be boys, it seems. Junior may very well have had a point (in terms of the incident with 11 laps to go being Mears’s fault); but seriously, has NASCAR’s favorite son not been watching how atrocious Mears has been these last few years? If I was on the highway next to the driver of the Jack Daniel’s Chevy, I’d give him as wide a berth as possible. And while it’s always good to see a 31st-place driver tangle with a 20th-place driver, too, both would be better served concentrating on running well – not getting into handbags at dawn type battles after the checkered flag has flown.

Sadler needs a bounceback… and then some

25th, 29th, 20th, 20th, 31st, 32nd and 32nd are Elliott Sadler’s finishing positions since a credible fifth-place run in the rain-shortened Daytona 500. His last win came at Fontana in September 2004; or, if you prefer, 163 races ago. Sadler had to resort to legal measures to keep his seat this year, and he’s been consistently outrun by teammates Kasey Kahne and AJ Allmendinger. It gives me no pleasure to hate on the very likable Virginian, but if you’re wondering what that ticking sound is – it’s the clock on Sadler’s Sprint Cup career expiring rapidly.

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