Yesterday’s news that popular veteran Mark Martin has agreed to compete full-time at least through 2010 in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet – instead of his originally announced part-time, 26-race schedule next season – did not come as a complete surprise. Martin had previously hinted that he very well might be interested in another full season of Sprint Cup competition, even as he looks at celebrating his 51st birthday in January.
But don’t let the age fool you on this one, as the 20-plus-year veteran has looked every bit as good behind the wheel than most 20-somethings on the circuit this decade. In 2007 and 2008, he had opted for part-time driving schedules while employed by Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. While driving for both organizations, Martin’s on-track results far outshined that of his protégés, Regan Smith and Aric Almirola, two young drivers that the Batesville, Arkansas native had actively mentored. This season, despite a rash of both mechanical failures and accidents not necessarily of his making, Martin presently sits 15th in the driver’s championship standings – only 61 points out of the Chase for the Sprint Cup-eligible 12th position.
For team owner Rick Hendrick, inking Martin to another full-time season seems to have left him thrilled. “Week in and week out, Mark continues to be one of the best racecar drivers in the world,” he said Wednesday. “He’s already made an incredible contribution to Hendrick Motorsports, and our entire company is excited about running another full season and winning races with him in 2010.”
Hendrick, whose racing stable also includes Jeff Gordon (four-time Cup champ), Jimmie Johnson (winner of the last three Cup championships) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (two-time Busch Series champion and the sport’s Most Popular Driver), clearly has already seen enough this season to know that Martin is also a “keeper.” On track, the veteran’s performance has been nothing short of championship-worthy. Throwing out the engine failures at Fontana and Las Vegas, as well as accidents in Atlanta and Talladega, the No. 5 Kellogg’s Chevrolet has been a contender everywhere we’ve been this season. Martin’s collected two top-five finishes, including a win at Phoenix, to go along with five top 10s in the six races where he hasn’t run into trouble.
Perhaps an underreported part of the story is how Martin’s signing helps Hendrick’s financial stability. Without a signed sponsor for the No. 5 team for 2010, having Martin in the car for the entire season will without a doubt be a huge benefit to their marketing department. The task of recruiting a multi-million dollar primary sponsor is considerably easier when you have a driver of Martin’s abilities and reputation to sell, instead of a convoluted ride-sharing arrangement that would have had Martin and, in all probability, Brad Keselowski doing a 26/10 race split. Now, they don’t have to worry about Keselowski, who, by the way, is now officially on the outside looking in at Hendrick’s Cup program unless he’s content to wait around until 2011.
But even that’s a risky proposition, as the man ahead of him on the depth chart shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Notorious for his intense workout routine, Martin leaves no doubt that he is, in spite of his age, more than physically fit enough to endure the rigors of wrestling stock cars at high speeds for 3-4 hours during a typical race. Despite being four years older than the next oldest full-time competitor – and double the age of drivers like 24-year-old Kyle Busch – Martin seems to have no qualms concerning the wear and tear provided by a full 36-race schedule.
“I’m in the best condition of my life, I’m recharged and I’m motivated,” he said Wednesday. “Going to the racetrack every weekend is still really fun, and that’s the key. There’s more gas in my tank.”
Of course, anytime someone extends a career there’s a risk of hanging on too long. But unlike many star athletes that overstay their time in a sport and tarnish their legacy, there is no reason to believe that will be the case with Martin. Over the past three years, his on-track success has demonstrated that he has lost little in his ability to race competitively. Any drop-off that he may have suffered through the natural aging process has more than been compensated for by his wealth of experience gained over two decades of racing at the highest level of competition. Combine that with a cool, calm and calculating demeanor behind the wheel, and you still have a winner – even possibly a title contender under the right circumstances.
In the end, it is nearly impossible to second guess Martin’s decision to extend his career, especially when being offered the top-level equipment he’s got at HMS. Martin already had an opportunity to cutback on his driving duties the past two seasons and get a glimpse at what retirement might be like. Obviously, he decided that the view was not to his liking… at least not for now.
Besides, wouldn’t it be great to see one of the most likable and respected drivers in the sport, now eligible for AARP membership, challenge for a championship… or, dare I say, win the championship? To be sure, it’s a scenario that in no way is beyond the realm of possibility. And should it happen, it’s a fairy tale story that would captivate not only NASCAR fans, but the general public, as well.
Can Martin really do it? Well, he’s just bought himself another shot should he not succeed this season… and with some of the best resources in the series available to help him out, there’s no reason not to expect the grizzly veteran won’t be in position to at least make the Chase once he’s fully settled into the ride in 2010.
But regardless of whether Martin finally does win the championship that has alluded him so many times or not, he will still be at the track – and that, in itself, is a win for all. For it is a cinch that, win or lose, Martin will grace the sport with his gentlemanly ways and extraordinary talent each and every time he slides behind the wheel.
So, having Mark Martin on the track for another full season of racing is – any way you slice it – a win–win for everybody!
And that’s my view from turn 5.