Speed Reading: Homestretch for Jarrett, Martin and Schrader

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Ryan McGee

In NASCAR we all get so busy during the course of sport's longest season that we tend to miss the most important parts of the experience. Today I realized that I had fallen into that trap. I, like everyone else, have spent this entire year so obsessed with the Chase for the Nextel Cup and Toyota and Evernham-Crocker that I haven't taken the time to enjoy what I really should have:

The last gasp of old school NASCAR.

When I first started covering this sport back in the early 1990s, I remember thinking how sad it was that there was this one sect in the garage that seemed to spend all their time pining for the good old days. This morning I realized that, 15 years later, it is happening again.

This weekend at Homestead-Miami, Mark Martin is behind the wheel of the No. 6 Ford for the last time. When he and Jack Roush joined forces in 1988, that car didn't even exist. Roush was a former Ford engineer who had decided to try his hand at stock car racing. Martin was 29 years old going on 60, back in Winston Cup after a failed self-bankrolled attempt at Rookie of the Year in 1982, an attempt that bankrupted his wallet and nearly his life. From Folgers to Valvoline to Viagra to AAA, Mark Martin and the No. 6 Ford teamed to create one of the most consistently successful rides in NASCAR history. No, they didn't win a championship, but 35 wins and $58 million isn't bad. When he returns to the track in February he will be a part-time racer for Ginn Motorsports. Even harder to imagine is that he will be behind the wheel of Chevy.
Also making their last laps together will be Dale Jarrett and car owner Robert Yates. Jarrett took a chance on RYR, leaving Joe Gibbs Racing at the end of '94 to take over the No. 28 Ford Thunderbird for injured Ernie Irvan. In '96, Irvan came back full time and D.J. moved to the newly formed No. 88 team, winning the Daytona 500 in his first race with the new ride. From 1996 to 2001, Jarrett never finished lower than fifth in points and his '99 Cup championship run was the result of one of the most amazingly consistent seasons the sport has ever known. Next season he will pilot a Toyota for Michael Waltrip Racing.

Ken Schrader made his Winston Cup debut in 1984 at the age of 29. This weekend he will be the oldest man in the field, making his 704th and final start as a full-time Cup driver. He will split seat time with rookie Jon Wood next season. Because it has been so long since Schrader won a Cup race, it is easy to forget about the good times, but in one eight-season span (1987-94) he finished in the top 10 in points seven times. With the exception of four races in 2003, he hasn't missed a start since the midpoint of the Reagan administration.

Terry Labonte retired three weeks ago, and Bill Elliott wisely turned down a couple of offers to come back full time. Rusty Wallace is a broadcaster. Ricky Rudd seems content to stay home and play with his son and their bulldozer. Sterling Marlin will turn 50 next June, and like Kyle Petty, seems to be looking for an escape plan. Dale Earnhardt has been gone nearly six years.

It is amazing to think about the sport and how it was back when these guys broke in. It was the world of Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and David Pearson. The only race that received live flag-to-flag coverage on network television was the Daytona 500, and that didn't happen until 1979. In that '79 race, a race that included Rudd, Elliott, Labonte and Earnhardt, only seven of the 41 cars entered carried what would be considered a real national sponsor. Richard Petty won $73,900 as he started his march to a seventh championship, a title that would earn him $561,933.

This weekend at Homestead a field of 43 cars, each with a big-time sponsor, was whittled out of 56 entries. The purse for the event is $5.2 million, and with one race to go no less than 43 drivers have won more than $1 million and a 44th is less than $8,000 shy. The season's 36th race will be the 36th race run on live television in more than 100 countries and countless others via worldwide radio and the internet. Hell, there's even a former Formula One title contender in the garage and another dozen open-wheel racers lobbying around hoping to land a ride for next season.

Those drivers who are on the way out are the last of a generation that built this empire. Sure, league officials and track moguls deserve some of the credit, but without race cars and men to drive them the rest of that stuff wouldn't exist.

These are the last drivers that worked on their own cars, who paid for their rides with their very own money, and towed their gear to the track themselves. They slept in crappy motels, begged for tire money and, when they could afford it, flew commercial airlines. They pleaded for media attention, clawed for respect in mainstream America, and then handled themselves with class when they finally got it. They raced at the Nashville Fairgrounds, Riverside and North Wilkesboro, and didn't merely hear stories about The King and the Silver Fox. They raced against them.

So please take a moment to reflect. Pause during this uber-hyped, ultra-marketed Ford Championship Weekend, the same weekend when the Young Guns will battle for the Cup, and Goody's Headache Powders will be replaced by Tylenol as the official pain reliever of NASCAR.

Take a deep breath and take your eyes off the frontrunners for just one second. NASCAR's version of "The Greatest Generation" is taking its parade laps. If you don't savor it now, you won't get another chance. Here's betting we'll all be sentimental for the moment in the not-so-distant future.

Ryan McGee is the managing editor at NASCAR Images.

Saturday on SPEED
Noon ET: NASCAR Live
12:30 p.m. ET: NASCAR Performance
1 p.m. ET: Nextel Cup practice
2 p.m. ET: NASCAR Live
2:30 p.m. ET: Nextel Cup Happy Hour
3:30 ET: Busch qualifying
5:30 p.m. ET: NASCAR Live
10 p.m. ET: SPEED Report: Busch wrapup
Sunday on SPEED
9 a.m. ET: Breakfast at Homestead
10 a.m. ET: Wind Tunnel: State of NASCAR
11 a.m. ET: NASCAR RaceDay
7 p.m. ET: NASCAR Victory Lane
8 p.m. ET: The SPEED Report
9 p.m. ET: Wind Tunnel
Busch Beat
It seems like Kevin Harvick clinched the 2006 Busch Series back in March, but the two-time NBS champ says that running the junior circuit has been a huge key to his Cup resurgence. "It has been a total getaway all season long. You can get away from things in the Busch car, like all the hype and stress of making a championship run on the Cup side. Once I got into that Busch car it totally took my mind off other things and that was a huge key to me staying loose and relaxed in Cup."

Truck Stop
The Bodine brothers have started more than 1,800 races across NASCAR's top three series, including Cup wins by Geoff and Brett. But it is little brother Todd who became the first of the famed family to win a NASCAR championship, earning the NCTS title on Friday at Homestead. The man affectionately known as Onion Head has made 228 starts in Cup, 315 Busch, and 65 with the trucks.

Why We Call Richard Petty "The King" Fact of the Week
Likely Nextel Cup champ Jimmie Johnson was born in 1975. That year, Richard Petty won 13 of 30 Cup races run and picked up 24 top 10s and an average finish of 6.6 for the entire season. He won his sixth championship by a record 722-point margin over Dave Marcis. Makes the Chase seem like a pretty good idea, huh?

This ain't your daddy's NASCAR
Sunday morning before he goes out to try and win his first Nextel Cup championship, Jimmie Johnson will do a live interview on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on ABC. What exactly are they going to talk about? How the new Democratic-controlled congress will affect chassis set-ups at Homestead?

Speed Mail of the Week
Julie from Greenville, SC: Ryan, I just wanted to say that as an avid Jimmie Johnson fan, and having read hundreds of articles about him, I think this is the best by far! You hit the nail on the head, and finally talked about the extraordinary comebacks and the unwillingness to lose by the 48 bunch! I have no doubt that they will give you the eighth comeback and I look forward to reading what you have to write about it!

Ryan McGee: Gee, Julie, I'm blushing. And as a proud graduate of Travelers Rest High School (Class of '89), I love Greenville! Go Devildogs!

Capping season of comebacks
For Jimmie Johnson, his shot at the 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup title hasn't been as much about winning the Daytona 500, the Nextel All-Star Challenge, or the Brickyard as it has been about already-forgotten efforts in far less sexy locales such as Pocono and Dover. An endless series of comebacks from a team that supposedly couldn't come from behind. A series of practice runs that led to one of the greatest stretch runs in NASCAR history.
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