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Speed Reading: Homestretch for Jarrett, Martin and Schrader
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.
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.