Mark Martin making 800th career Cup start
by Vito Pugliese
The U.S. Navy SEALS have a certain code and mantra they live by: Not dead, can’t quit.
That came to mind when looking back on the storied carrier of one of NASCAR’s most recognizable personalities. This Sunday marks a milestone for one of the storied names in NASCAR history, as Mark Martin makes his 800th career start fittingly enough, at Martinsville. Not unlike Charlie Sheen’s antics of late, it’s been a run that would have killed most mortals, and truly embodies what “winning” is all about.
As humble a man as Martin is, it truly is a minor miracle that he’s gotten to 800 starts, which places him eighth on the all-time starts list. It is a career that has endured triumph and tragedy, smiles, tears and a never-say-die attitude that has seen him rise from the ashes of being virtually bankrupt and washed up as a 24 year old to one of the most respected and revered drivers in the sport.
Ironically, Martinsville is not one of Martin’s favorite tracks. He once remarked prior to a race that if he won, he’d run through the grandstands in his underwear. While Martin may not threaten to streak through the grandstands in his whitey tighties this weekend if he wins, he might just military press the now-familiar Grandfather clock to celebrate, as his last win came a while back, at New Hampshire in the fall of 2009. That particular weekend went quite well, but one of his other milestone races – his 600th consecutive start in 2003 – came at New Hampshire as well. That weekend he was honored with a special golden paint scheme, but he ended up laying a golden egg, finishing 33rd.
While Martin was able to shield the fans from the pale whiteness that go round, he brought some fire in 2005 when a cooked brake at Martinsville blew out a tire and sent him headlong into the wall, a crash that would signal the end of his title hopes that season. A year later, while sitting just 102 points out of the lead with five races remaining, he was in the catbird’s seat, running in the top 5 with 25 laps to go. However, a piece of debris shot through his grille and radiator, ruining the day with a 24th place finish – and crushing his title hopes yet again.
That isn’t to say his trips to everyone’s favorite paper clip have been completely fruitless. His first career top-5 finish came at Martinsville in September 1981, when he finished third. In April 1992 he won the Hanes 500, outlasting the competition on a day when virtually everyone was sheering axles and blowing out rear end gears from excessive camber settings. In 2000, a tire-strategy call by then-crew chief Jimmy Fennig propelled Martin to his only victory that season.
Martin’s luck turned a bit darker around 2003. A winless ’03 season saw Martin mired 18th in points in the final standings – the worst of his Sprint Cup career. Meanwhile, teammate and protégé Matt Kenseth was in the process of winning the final Winston Cup championship under the “traditional” points format.
A slow start the following season stymied by engine woes facilitated a scramble to make the Chase in the debut year for NASCAR’s new point system, as well as to help ensure sponsorship stayed secured on the side of the car. The stress of several sure-wins lost in the final laps through failed pit strategies the following seasons helped justify the actions of announcing a career change in late ’04.
It was then that Martin announced that 2005 would be his final full-time season in Cup competition. Regardless of what the media continues to purport, he is not the Brett Favre of NASCAR – his announcement specifically denied any rumor of retirement. It was simply an opportunity to take a step back and reassess things and spend some time with his son Matt, who at the time was in the midst of beginning a burgeoning racing career. After nearly 20 seasons of running wide-open and expending untold amounts of physical, mental and emotional energy (and misery), it was time to put his career in neutral while leaving the engine running.
During this breather from full-time competition, Martin nearly won the Daytona 500 in a controversial last-lap finish driving for a team that would cease to exist six months later. He helped keep Dale Earnhardt, Inc. afloat long enough for it to merge with Ganassi Racing following the departure of Dale Earnhardt, Jr. Then, as luck would have it, Martin joined Earnhardt at Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, returning to full-time Cup competition for the first time since ’06. His encore performance was nothing short of remarkable, notching five wins with his new No. 5 team — a mark bested only by his seven-win 1998 season.
Martin’s second-place finish to Jimmie Johnson in the Chase was a feel-good story for a sport that hadn’t had much to crow about in the midst of a ratings and attendance downturn, coupled with the economic struggles that plague virtually every industry that helps support it.
The 2010 season proved to be a difficult one for Martin’s squad as well as those of teammates Earnhardt and Jeff Gordon. A three-way team swap that paired Martin with crew chief Lance McGrew brings us to start No. 800 in what is scheduled to be his final full season in the Cup Series.
Martin has stated since last summer that he has no plans beyond this year, though has a five-race deal with Turner Motorsports in the Nationwide Series, one that produced a win in his first start at Las Vegas two weeks ago. The all-time Nationwide Series wins leader now leads Kyle Busch by four victories overall, while in the Cup Series he sits 14th in points, just 10 markers out of ninth.
It isn’t often you find someone that has been doing the same thing for over 25 years, and certainly not to the standards set by Martin. He’s taught a generation of drivers how to compete with a code while helping launch the fitness and conditioning revolution that has swept through the garage, inspiring a number of drivers to eschew beers and burgers (and this weekend’s famous pink Martinsville hot dogs). He has done as much to shape the image of drivers as athletes as any one figure in NASCAR, and is a testament to preparation and clean living as the path to longevity and success.
Much of this has already been written about Martin, and for good reason, as it will most likely be retold when he makes his 1,000th starts at some point in the future. Yeah, even at 52 years of age you can pretty much bank on Martin getting to that point.
He’s not dead, and can’t quit.