Stars aligning for Martin's best shot at title
Don't expect Mark Martin to trade in his NASCAR license for an AARP card any time soon.
Like most baby boomers, Martin is living life on his own terms.
Sure, there was that lapse of judgment earlier this season when Martin traded his silver buzz cut for something out of a "Just for Men" commercial. Fortunately, Martin returned to his roots.
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And on Saturday night, when Martin dominated the closing laps of the Southern 500 at the oldest track on the Sprint Cup tour, it seemed as if NASCAR had returned to its roots as well.
It was the Darlington Raceway of old: A country crooner sang the national anthem, there were 23 lead changes, cars a-blazing and a stripe that blackened around the outside wall of the 1.366-mile track as a blood red moon rose over Turn 1. Despite a record 17 cautions, the action never seemed to slow. Once the sand and speedy dry stopped swirling through the humid South Carolina night, Martin rolled into Victory Lane for his 37th-career Cup win.
Now, this is what NASCAR Chairman Brian France needed when he spoke of "Back to Basics" racing.
Martin is the poster boy for NASCAR's core fan — a dedicated wheelman who has won on all but five tracks on the Cup tour and scored 401 top 10s in 733 starts.
Despite winning three American Speed Association titles, few believed in 1981 that the then 22-year-old Martin had paid his dues to compete at the Cup level. But despite struggling during that initial attempt, he would prove the pundits wrong. Martin went back to the Midwest, dominated the ASA again and returned full-time in 1988 with newcomer Jack Roush.
Martin's 19-year relationship with Roush produced four runner-up finishes in the point standings but no championships. Roush has often accepted responsibility for not providing Martin with the caliber of equipment necessary to produce titles. But Martin would never refer to his loyalty to Roush as misguided. After all, it was Roush who gave Martin that second chance more than 20 years ago. So despite Martin's first attempt at retirement with the "Salute to You" tour in 2005, when Roush asked his friend to stay, how could he refuse?
After the 2006 season, however, Bobby Ginn made Martin an offer he couldn't refuse — a limited 24-race schedule (no Talladega) and an obscene salary. No, Martin has never raced for the money, but given his modest remuneration at Roush, Ginn's compensation was more in line with a racer who consistently delivered. In 19 full-time seasons, Martin finished outside of the top in points just three times.
When FOX Sports first reported last June that Martin would replace Casey Mears in the No. 5 Chevrolet at Hendrick Motorsports, it came as no surprise. No, Martin didn't have the championships that Jeff Gordon or Jimmie Johnson boast. But Martin had proven time and again that he was not only a team player, he was a leader. Rick Hendrick desperately needed stability in the No. 5 car — something that was missing since Terry Labonte left the seat.
"Mark is so much fun to be around," Hendrick said. "And he has so much talent. He's added so much to our organization. Not just to the 5 car, but to our entire organization. He's made all of us step up."