Mark Martin has never liked the “R-word,” as in retire.
So on Friday, the 54-year-old veteran didn’t use that word — but did acknowledge, in his own terms, that he will leave the driver’s seat at the end of the season, ending a 31-year career behind the wheel.
“I don’t have any racing scheduled for 2014 and haven’t had,” Martin said at Phoenix International Raceway. “I do, however, have an undefined role at Stewart-Haas (Racing). The major definition is I’ll do his (Tony Stewart’s) preseason testing.
“The cool thing about that is I’ll be kind of doing it on my terms. We haven’t gone solid with the level of commitment or duties that I will have. I told them I wanted to get this year behind me. I’m kind of tired and might not make the best decisions right now. I want to stay focused on these races. We’re improving and that feels good. It’s been a lot of hard work by all these guys to start improving, and we’re there now, so I’m digging that.”
Over his long career, Martin posted 40 wins in the Sprint Cup Series and 49 victories in the Nationwide Series. He acknowledged he made up his mind to step down in January, and those close to him have known of his decision for some time.
Although he returned to Michael Waltrip Racing at the start of the season and was expected to take on a similar role with that team at the end of the year, Martin was called to fill in for Stewart after he broke his leg at Southern Iowa Speedway on Aug. 5. Martin plans to perform preseason testing for the owner/driver since Stewart isn’t expected to return to competition until Speedweeks in February.
Martin confirmed he will not race in the Daytona 500. Although he was never victorious at that track, Martin felt vindicated finishing his final Great American Race with a third-place run last February. Martin then came to Phoenix, where he posted his 56th and final pole in March.
But the rest of the season has been a struggle for the affable veteran who isn’t ready to talk about what next weekend’s final start could mean to him.
“I don’t want to discuss that right now,” Martin said. “I’ve really enjoyed this year and not dealing with all that. I don’t think that’s of any major consequence. Let’s just don’t talk about it.”
Martin wasn’t “ready to quit” driving following his success at Hendrick Motorsports, where he won five races and battled Jimmie Johnson for the 2009 Sprint Cup championship before finishing second.
Two years later, Martin experienced a similar rebirth when he joined MWR. Although he ran just 24 races, Martin posted four poles, four finishes of third or higher and 10 top 10’s. Still, at the end of that season, Martin realized he was “at a disadvantage” having to “work harder than most of the young guys in the garage” to try to keep up.
“No matter how hard you work at it, eventually Father Time will extract its toll from your skills,” Martin said. “I’ve been pretty fast. I was pretty darn fast in 2012. When I finished 2012, I had a contract for another year, and that’s what we did. But I didn’t intend to go beyond that. I also didn’t intend to tell anybody that, because it’s not really important.
“Just like whether or not I’m retiring is not really important. I’m not sure if you’re still working if you’re really retiring. I’m just saying I don’t have anything lined up to race for next year.”
But the age factor was unmistakable in Martin’s move. While Martin acknowledged that certain drivers peak at different ages and some “hold their peak longer” than others, he couldn’t deny that at a certain age every skill — such as hand-eye coordination — is “affected as you get older.”
“A lot has to do with their race car and the desire to do anything it takes to run good,” Martin said. “At some point in time, that decline becomes a detriment. You can work as hard as you want, you can maybe run good, but you’re fighting Father Time.
“I can still drive a race car pretty fast, but I’m not the driver I was at my peak and I know it. Maybe for a while, I didn’t but I know it. I still run good. I’m not saying I can’t, but I can feel it in everything I do. But every time I walk across the room, I can tell I’m not 35.”
Still, it’s been a good run for the Batesville, Ark., native who achieved more than he ever imagined. There are not many competitors who can say they had the opportunity to race during NASCAR’s golden age against Richard Petty, David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip as well as in the modern era against future Hall of Famers such as Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Stewart.
Martin also feels fortunate “to collect a little bit of hardware along the way and a lot of friends, which is even more important than the hardware. That’s what’s important, is the friends and the experiences.”
“The garage is full of drivers that are on their game, and I’ve gotten all the good out of mine,” Martin added. “I squeezed every ounce out of it. No one can say that I didn’t. I worked really, really hard over the last 10 years to remain a formidable opponent … but it’s time for me to do some other things.”
Martin plans to contribute to SHR in whatever fashion the organization sees fit. He hasn’t “inked anything” with the company — and won’t until the season finale at Homestead. As Stewart continues to recover, Martin will test the No. 14 Chevy — and jump in the seat for any of the other drivers when needed to offer feedback.
Martin said he “won’t miss being a race car driver,” because when he was at the top of his game, he was competitive against the best in NASCAR. He said “it’s exciting” that he will still be involved in the sport, though it stopped being fun when his number wasn’t among the top at the speed chart.
“I was trying to go out with some dignity,” Martin said. “The last two months haven’t been pretty. Everybody in the garage suffers through times when they’re not able to get their cars to do what they need them to do. I’m not the only one.”
If there’s a positive to Martin stepping away from the driver’s seat it will be his increased availability at the race track. Over the years, Martin admitted, he wasn’t always one of the more accessible racers.
“It’s not like I’m not going to go hide,” Martin said. “I have 40 years invested in this sport and I’ve had tunnel vision the whole 40 years. I won’t be at every race, but I’ll be at races and I’m still going to be involved in the sport.
“When I do have contact with (the fans) I believe I will have time for that picture or I will have time for that autograph. I think they can find a silver lining in the change.”