Why Mark Martin just can't win
Rick Hendrick lured Mark Martin out of semi-retirement to race this year
With the body of a high school wrestler, he's ratched up the team's intensity
While he's having fun, this won't be the feel good story of the year in the end
The anticipation of it conjures guilt. It shouldn't. No more than the expectation of the tide that pulls a child's sand castle back into the sea. It is going to happen. And we all know it. The only question how inhumane it will be.
The Mark Martin that floated on a perfume-scented cushion of air through the offseason and into Daytona International Speedway earlier this month was not the tortured, tragic hero that had defined the code of ethics and parameters of hard luck in 26 previous Sprint Cup seasons.
Martin is a liked man, a respected man, in some ways a revered man, an unusual combination of traits so universally agreed upon regarding any driver, especially one who has yet to win a championship at NASCAR's highest level.
"I get a lot more respect than I feel I deserve ... so, don't wake me up," he grinned.
But Martin has never outwardly projected the image of a happy man. Certainly not an ebullient man, a giddy man whose face crinkles along hard-earned sun and worry lines into an exuberant smile. He actually cackled one morning at Daytona a few weeks ago after an on-track ceremony commemorating 25 seasons of competition for his new team, Hendrick Motorsports.
Therein lay the reason for his almost unguarded optimism, of course, stunning considering Martin has hardly ever been a lucky man. A team that had come to dominate the series in recent years, lured him out of semi-retirement to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet full-time. After finishing second in points four times, twice under dubious circumstances, Martin, allowed to "completely recharge my battery" after two seasons of semi-retirement, was seemingly cued up for at least one more grab at the elusive prize. At 50 -- he looks 70 from the neck up but like a teenaged high school wrestler from the collar down -- he is in such physical shape that he has shamed owner Rick Hendrick and new teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., into new workout regimens. The glint in his gaze suggests a singular focus.
Matt Kenseth, the 2003 series champion and Daytona 500-winner who was discovered by Martin and mentored by him at Roush Racing, has this year seen a discernable difference in his teammate of seven seasons.
"I started racing with him and everybody said he was miserable - and he kind of was," Kenseth said. "He was never in a good mood. He finished second and he was mad he didn't win and if he was sixth he was mad he wasn't fifth. His cars always drove like junk. He was really busy at that time and he was really successful and everything was a pain. You kind of watched him go to where he was semi-retired and ran half seasons and all this and I think he finally figured out he was bored and wanted to race full-time again and couldn't stand to be away from it. To be with Hendrick and be with a team he knows he can win with and everything ... to be back with a championship-caliber ride, it just seems like he's really, really excited about it."
The final chapter of the Mark Martin saga could be sublime. There could be a championship. There could be documentaries, book deals. Someone line up Ed Harris for the movie.
But it's not going to happen. Because it's Martin. You know it. And that's sort of sad. Though he's been curmudgeonly and surly as often as gallant and staid, he deserves better if only for working so hard for so long. And the newly gleeful Martin has been easier, albeit stranger, to be around.
Still, this dream is a sand castle about to meet a wave.
The great undoing began subtly on Sunday at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, Calif. Martin was among the faster cars when a valve train problem sent him to the garage and to a 40th-place finish. A highly unusual quality control issue with a vendor part by Hendrick's engine department had scuttled both Martin and Earnhardt Jr.'s No. 88 Chevrolet. That dull crunching sound in the distance is the approach of cruel fate.
Martin should be steeled for such an eventuality. This is a man former team owner Jack Roush said is "not surprised at the worst, and he's more surprised when things work out than most people would be."
Martin all but chiseled the inscription on his mausoleum in 2004, saying "I've had my heart broke plenty of times in this business. Things seem to find a way of not working out for me" and it is hard to begrudge his sense of fatalism professionally and personally. He spent much of his early life exhausting his bank account to break into NASCAR. He spent the 1980s brutalizing his body with alcohol before he began honing it with diet and exercise. His father Julian, stepmother Shelley, and 11-year-old stepsister Sarah died in a private plane crash near Ely, Nev., in 1998.
"People have to decide if the glass is half full or half empty," Roush said in 2004. "Most of the time Mark's is half empty. It's just the way he is. He works real hard. He is real serious about what he does in his approach to racing, in approach to his life. He has been careful with his money, taken care of his family -- he's had a lot of tragedies in his life."
Self-deprecating seemingly to the point of self-loathing, Martin often discounts his accomplishments, which include 35 Sprint Cup wins (fourth on the active list) a series-best 48 wins in the Nationwide and a record 13 victories and five championships in the IROC series. Odd events always kept him from finally shedding the dubious label of "best driver without a championship," though. Martin won three races and led the points standings for 25 weeks in 1990, but his No. 6 Ford was found to have used an illegal carburetor spacer plate after winning at Richmond. He was penalized 46 points and finished second to Dale Earnhardt Sr. in the final standings by 26 points.
Martin led the standings again late in the 2002 season before Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge were allowed nose piece modifications. Tony Stewart drove past Martin in his No. 20 Pontiac to win his first championship for Joe Gibbs Racing -- by 38 points.
Martin has also finished third in the final standings four times. Burned out, he left full-time competition at Roush after the 2006 season to run 24 events the last two season for Ginn Racing and then Dale Earnhardt Inc. after the companies merged. In his first Daytona 500 with Ginn in 2007, Martin appeared to lead Kevin Harvick in the final stretch when an accident obliterated the field behind them in a green/white/checker finish. But instead of waving a caution and freezing the field as was standard procedure, NASCAR officials allowed the race to continue and Harvick nipped Martin by .02 seconds. An elusive first Daytona 500 win was gone, and Martin initially bemoaned another disappointment but would not indulge scrutiny of the ruling thereafter.
Two years later, he understands there is scrutiny of this bold re-entry in the sport, expectation of and from Hendrick Motorsports, but he won't indulge that, either.
"Falling short of (expectations) because the line is so high, it would be easy for that to happen," he admitted. "I understand that expectations are high. If you're asking me how I manage all that internally, I'm going to tell you that I'm just going to look over here instead of look at that because I'm obsessive and compulsive and I don't need to be obsessing and compulsing over whether or not I'm going to be able to meet their expectations. If I drive as well as I drove last year and they give me the kind of race cars that I had part of the time last year ... the kind of race cars that (crew chief) Alan (Gustafson) and that group are capable of producing, then bad luck or not I should be able to hopefully meet those expectations. I can say that for me mentally and physically I have never put so much into the preparation."
Which is why this one is going to hurt.