Mark Martin's last attempt at a title will come in the best equipment available
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Article originally published in 2009 Athlon Sports Racing annual
— by Amanda Brahler
Vying for the championship that has eluded him for more than 25 years, Mark Martin returns to full-time duty with ... Hendrick Motorsports?
Statistically speaking, Mark Martin has produced numbers worthy of championships, and off the track he comes across as a champion in every sense of the word, minus the official crowning moment. He made his Sprint Cup debut in 1981 and over the years has scored 41 poles, 243 top 5s and 396 top-10 finishes, in more than 700 career starts. The Arkansas native currently sits 18th on the all-time wins list with 35 trophies to date. He also sits atop the leaderboard in the Nationwide Series for career wins with 48.
He’s won championships in two now-defunct series, the short track American Speed Association (ASA), where he first got his professional start in racing, and a record five in the International Race of Champions (IROC), which showcased drivers from various disciplines.
With the big trophy in stock car’s most illustrious division lacking from his trophy case, Martin will give it one more go, with a one-year, full-time deal lined up at Hendrick Motorsports in the No. 5 Chevrolet. He has a two-year contract in hand with 2010 expected to be a return to a scaled-back schedule, with 26 races being the target. But depending on how this season goes, that could change.
It has before.
Martin spent most of his career with car owner Jack Roush, driving a Ford under the Roush Racing umbrella, but he began his career in what was then known as the Winston Cup Series as an owner/driver in 1981. He ran the entire schedule again the next year, once again in a self-owned car.
Over the next few seasons he ran for multiple teams before joining Roush in ’88. He earned his first career win a year later at Rockingham. And so began quite a successful relationship.
After 19 years that produced four runner-up finishes and 12 consecutive finishes within the top 10 in the points standings from 1989 through 2000, Martin planned to sever his business relationship with Roush in 2006. He originally announced his departure from Roush by means of retirement, but Roush was unable to find a suitable replacement for the following season, so Martin helped out his longtime friend and returned. Despite the retirement announcement for the previous season, circumstances — and his hunger for competition — forced him to reconsider his initial decision, and he latched on with another race team.
Thinking a gradual escape would be best, he made the move to Ginn Racing, which later merged with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. Out of the gate, Martin showed that he would be a contender despite running a scaled-back schedule. He finished second by .02 seconds in the Daytona 500, a race he has never won, to Kevin Harvick.
The last two seasons have been a different change of pace for Martin. He ran only 24 races in 2007 and 24 again in ’08, combining for nine top-5 and 22 top-10 finishes. He hasn’t won since 2005, when he was still under the Roush umbrella.
That is what drove Martin into his new endeavor — the desire to return to his old, competitive form.
But the Hendrick Motorsports Mark Martin is a far cry from the Roush Racing-era Mark Martin. The sport has changed. Competition has changed. Martin has changed.
Throughout his career he’s seen the devastation of tragedy and suffered personal loss. He’s driven with broken bones — ribs, wrist, the usual fractures that racers think nothing of once they climb into their racecar. Martin was once known for his heavy workout regimen, but those days are long gone. A decade ago, he had back surgery to relieve constant pain. At 50, Martin has handed over the distinction as the most physically fit driver to Carl Edwards, he of backflip and shirtless magazine cover fame.
After his consideration of retirement a few years ago, some question Martin’s comeback now, wondering whether or not he’s able to be as competitive as he once was and whether he’s realistic in thinking that he can contend for a championship this late in the game.
But Martin scoffs at the notion.
“This has been my life since 1974,” he says. “Racing has been my life. I can’t tell you how lucky I am to be still participating on this level. And what it means to me to be a part of it. I sure dread the day that I won’t be able to participate anymore.
“Hendrick Motorsports has won a lot of championships and we can’t say how good it could be for us. It could be really, really good for us. Or it could be good for us, and not be good enough. That’s been the case for me in a number of tries before — where we were really good, but it wasn’t good enough that particular year.”
Martin knows all about falling short. His runner-up finishes in four championship battles have come to legendary drivers — twice to a seven-time series champion, the late Dale Earnhardt (1990 and 1994), once to two-time champ Tony Stewart (2002), and once to his new Hendrick Motorsports teammate, four-time champ Jeff Gordon (1998).
“I’m not into torturing myself,” Martin says of looking back at just how close he was to winning a title. “And I’m not into making excuses, and there’s plenty of them. I just don’t care to go there. I came to grips with not winning a championship, and to me that means that I wasn’t ever good enough. I just never was good enough. We were awfully good, but never good enough.”
His 1990 finish to Earnhardt was the closest he’s come to the title. A mere 26 points separated the two at season’s end, the fifth-closest finish in series history at the time.
Off of the track, ’98 was a trying year for Martin. His father, Julian, stepmother and sister all perished in a plane crash in Nevada. It is well known that Julian taught little Mark to drive at the age of five. Mark would sit on his father’s lap, steering the vehicle while dad operated the pedals.
Though racing with a heavy heart, he didn’t slow down. If anything, he used his father’s passing as motivation. He won seven races that season, the most he earned in a single season throughout his career, but fell short to Gordon, who won an astounding 13 races and notched 28 top 10s in 33 races.
Unable to beat them, Martin joins the Hendrick stable with three other drivers including Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, the three-time and first back-to-back-to-back title winner since Cale Yarborough, as well as fan favorite Dale Earnhardt Jr.
He replaces Casey Mears in the No. 5 Chevy, who, after two years of driving for Hendrick, produced a single win, the only one of his career.
Hendrick, in his 25th anniversary as a Cup car owner, first established a relationship with Martin in 2007, when Martin piloted a Hendrick car in three Nationwide Series events. In his debut with Hendrick at Darlington, Martin finished second, and as Hendrick merged the Nationwide effort with JR Motorsports in 2008, the two visited Victory Lane together in Las Vegas.
The short introduction with the Hendrick organization also allowed crew chief Alan Gustafson to get to know the veteran driver.
Gustafson will be calling the shots for Martin this year. Together, the duo will have to overcome a slight age gap and any working obstacles it may bring. At 33, though entering his fourth year as a Sprint Cup crew chief, Gustafson has worked with Kyle Busch and Mears, who were both under the age of 30 while paired with him.
In 2005 Gustafson made his debut as crew chief along with then-rookie Busch. The duo cranked out two wins and Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors. In 2006 and 2007, they made the Chase.
In 2008, Busch left Hendrick for Joe Gibbs Racing and Gustafson was paired with Mears. For whatever reason, the two struggled to hit a stride. They failed to qualify for the Chase, finished 20th in points and notched only one top 5 and six top 10s.
Gustafson is looking forward to the next step in his career. Admittedly, he still has a lot to learn, and entering the season feels that Martin may be his best shot at a championship.
“The last two years have had some changes and it’s not something that I think any of us want to go through, from Mr. Hendrick on down, but unfortunately it’s just part of the business,” Gustafson says. “I just try to learn from it the best that I can. I try to make myself a better crew chief and a better manager. I’ve learned a ton from Kyle, a lot from Casey. I’m not saying you want to keep making changes as a crew chief, but you can learn from those experiences. What we’ve gone through as a team has made us better and really appreciate the opportunity with Mark.”
Last season, three of Hendrick’s four teams made the Chase, with Mears being the lone missing driver. Earnhardt enters 2009 in his second year with the organization, having made the Chase in his first year with the team, along with crew chief Tony Eury Jr.
Though Martin will be running his first season with HMS, the difference is that Earnhardt and Eury had worked together previously. Gustafson and Martin have only a few Nationwide Series races and a couple test dates under their belts, but both believe the newness of their team will be beneficial.
“He’s everything you could ever ask for,” Gustafson says of working with Martin. “He has incredible credentials and talent. The thing about Mark that is so special is that you look at his career and he’s still motivated and determined even with everything that he’s accomplished.
“I know Mark doesn’t like to allude to it — I don’t want to try to get too far off of the reservation — but I feel like if we can accomplish that goal (of winning the championship), I don’t know how you could have a higher achievement, in my opinion. I think winning a championship with Mark Martin would be the ultimate that you can achieve. In my opinion, he is by far the best driver in this sport who hasn’t won a championship.
“Nobody else even comes close to deserving as much he does,” Gustafson continues. “If we can make that happen in a year, which is a huge order to make that happen, that would be the highlight of my career. …There is nothing that I can say that I can accomplish in my career that would mean more to me than to win a championship with Mark Martin.
“I do think it’s tough. You get one shot. Our focus is to make the Chase first, win as many races as we can and then we will worry about the championship. That’s the ultimate goal. I think we can do all of those things.”
Adds Martin: “It has so many positive effects. If you work with the same team for very long, then you find out that you can’t do it. And you’ll never do it. As soon as you figure out that you can’t, it will never happen. When you’re new together, you don’t know you can’t. And that is when you get the very best results. When you don’t know that you can’t do it.
“There is a learning curve for me and Alan to get maximum results from one another. Sometimes he may not be able to finish my sentence, and sometimes I may not be able to finish his, but the one thing that we don’t know is that we can’t do it. I think that’s a big thing.”
A lot is expected of the Martin/Gustafson union. Once the announcement of Martin’s joining Hendrick was made last July, the speculation quickly began of how far the two could go, with the majority quickly making them a shoe-in for the Chase.
Whether or not they do make that cut, one thing is certain — they will have to figure out a way to stop teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. The Chase seems to suit the three-peat duo’s numbers in the final 10-race battle for the championship.
“I do have a really good seat to see how good they are and how hard they work,” Gustafson says of Johnson and Knaus. “They accomplish amazing feats. To formulate a plan to beat them, I wish I could say there was some trick plan. It comes down to good, old-fashioned determination and hard work. We’re just going to have to be a little bit better. They’ve raised the bar.”
Martin too, is already thinking about the competition.
“To have people predicting that we might make it in the 5 car makes me feel really good. If we get in there, and anyone puts up any numbers like the 48 (Johnson) and the 99 (Carl Edwards, who finished second in points) did (last) year, it will be really hard to expect to win a championship against anyone who puts those kind of numbers up.
“I hope that Alan and I can learn enough about one another during the first 26 races to be able to race differently for the last 10. Certainly the first half of the season, he and I are going to be focusing on getting pretty good performance and trying to win a race and gathering enough points to put us in a position to be in the Chase. But, for us more than anyone else, our game will change if we make the Chase. Because we are new together, and we will be learning more together in the first 26 races than most teams.”
Fans, colleagues and media members all expected that Martin would be out of the sport by now. Not due to age or the loss of ability but because, admittedly, his heart wasn’t in it anymore.
After the passing of his father, the realization that his son was growing up with him mostly absent, Martin opted — on his own terms — for retirement, declaring that he wanted to spend more time with his wife Arlene and his youngest child, son Matt (Martin is also the father to four daughters).
It’s possible that the opportunity with Hendrick is what he’d been waiting for. A sort of “pieces falling into place” sports story you read about, but rarely witness firsthand.
Maybe Martin was simply giving up a few years ago, thinking he and Roush had exhausted every resource they had. And maybe he felt as if all other opportunities had long since passed him by.
But whatever the reason, Martin is back full-time in 2009 with one goal in mind.
“It would contradict today’s thoughts about youth and enthusiasm overcoming age and experience, which would be really cool,” Martin says when contemplating a possible championship breakthrough. “It would definitely drive the point home that sometimes dreams really do come true. Sometimes there is such a thing as a Cinderella story. I think that’s the biggest thing — that to let it go this far and then pull one out of the hat would be pretty incredible for everyone, especially myself. I think it would mean an enormous amount to Rick Hendrick as well. I think Rick would really like to see that because we’ve been around for so long.”
It may be a long shot, but the Hendrick pairing could produce a story of old-school beating new-school, a half-century old competitor besting a bunch of 20-somethings (and even one or two teenagers), but Martin says that however it turns out, his joining Hendrick completes his career.
“It’s the biggest honor of my career. I say that the trophy doesn’t make the man; the man makes the trophy. I have a lot of really, really great trophies. Some of them are made of metal, and some are made of glass, and some are just honors that were bestowed on me.
“This is the biggest trophy of my career. To be where I am in my career, to be 50 years old, and to have a chance to drive for Rick Hendrick with this kind of effort, this kind of car and this kind of equipment. To have him pursue me to do this, means more to me than anything else in my trophy case.”
An obvious case of, “I just can’t pass this up” has landed in Martin’s lap. And whether he claims that elusive Cup title with Hendrick Motorsports in 2009 or not, he’ll never have to deal with the regret of saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
“I told Arlene when we talked about this, I’m pretty sure that the last breath I took on my deathbed would be, ‘I should have drove Rick’s car when I had the chance.’ I didn’t want to do that or regret that until the last breath I took.”