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Take a close look at the two men, Mark Martin and Rusty Wallace, standing beside their race cars minutes before engines roar to life at Tennessee's Bristol Motor Speedway on this last Saturday night in August. Cameras flash all around them as fans try to capture one last image of these graying competitors before they drive off NASCAR's biggest stage, the Nextel Cup circuit. See Martin's and Wallace's hands? They're leathery and hard, and they've navigated some 500,000 miles of racetrack in Cup events alone. That's the equivalent of 45 laps around the continental U.S. Between them, Martin and Wallace have made 1,324 Cup starts, won 89 races and one championship ( Wallace in 1989), and finished second in the point standings six times ( Wallace in '88 and '93; Martin in '90, '94, '98 and 2002).
Now check out their eyes, crow's-feet etched in the corners. Those eyes have seen every conceivable situation on the racetrack, which is precisely why, even at their relatively advanced ages-- Martin is 46, Wallace, 49--the two men have run in the lead pack all season. "We're still giving 'em hell," Martin tells Wallace, slapping his closest friend in NASCAR on the back. "It's hard to believe, but we're still doing it."
It is hard to believe: Over the next 10 weeks, as NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup unfolds, Martin and Wallace will battle for the title against drivers who were still sucking their thumbs when the two Old Guns made their first Cup starts in the early 1980s. In fact, the next 2 1/2 months of racing will most likely mark the end of an era in NASCAR. According to most of the rank and file in the garage, the odds are good that this will be the last time that two drivers in their late 40s will be in the Chase. Wallace, currently third in the point standings, is retiring after the final race of the year, in Homestead, Fla., on Nov. 20; Martin, sixth in points, says he's unsure if he'll return for a 19th season in 2006, and if he does, it will be his last.
"When I'm Rusty's and Mark's age, I won't be a full-time Cup driver," says 30-year-old Jimmie Johnson, echoing a sentiment expressed by many of his fellow Young Guns. "Drivers are getting younger every year. It's just the way our sport is moving. Rusty and Mark are the last of a breed." One factor, cited by Johnson and others, likely to curtail careers is the increase in sponsor demands on drivers' time. Today's racers face a grueling schedule of appearances that must be fit between races and test sessions in a season that stretches from February through December.
"I don't think you'll ever see two guys our age doing this again," says Martin. "Won't happen. For better or worse, it's a new era--and younger is in."
Younger undoubtedly is in, with NASCAR teams scouting and signing drivers before they turn 20, but younger doesn't necessarily mean smarter. "Kids out there want to rock and roll and go as fast as possible all the time," says Wallace. "Well, that can cause a lot of problems. You've got to be patient, and that's something that's easier to be when you're a little older." Says Martin, "The one skill that gets better with age is judgment. Anything we've lost physically we make up for with good judgment on the track. We don't put ourselves in bad situations."
There's a saying in NASCAR: To finish first, you first must finish. Martin and Wallace embrace the wisdom of this old racing saw more than any other two drivers in the sport. Wallace's number 2 Miller Lite Dodge has finished a series-leading 39 straight races, dating to the Bristol night race in August 2004 and including a fifth-place finish on Saturday night in the Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond International Raceway. Martin's number 6 Viagra Ford was running at the end of 25 of the 26 races this season, counting a 13th at Richmond.
Though Martin and Wallace typically aren't driving the fastest cars on the track--combined they've won only two points races in the last three years--their ability to avoid accidents and take care of their equipment makes them championship contenders under NASCAR's scoring system, which heavily rewards consistency.
"We're capable of finishing in the top five of every race of the Chase," says Larry Carter, Wallace's crew chief. "The thing that Rusty does so well is that he waits for the perfect moment to make his move. He's especially good at late-race restarts. He can run 20th all day, then fool some of those younger guys on the late restarts, and by the time the race is over, he's up to third. He knows how to seize the important moments of a race."
Like Wallace, Martin is a model of control on the track. His patience and ability at 180 mph to weigh risk versus reward before making a move isn't going to inspire filmmakers to green-light a biopic, but as the laps wind down in each race of the Chase, he'll be lurking in the vicinity of the first 10 cars, if he's not among them. In 1988 Martin was the first driver signed by Jack Roush, a longtime drag-racing and sports-car owner who was expanding into NASCAR, and Roush--who has had two other drivers, Matt Kenseth and Kurt Busch, respectively, win the last two championships--would like nothing better than to reward Martin's loyalty over the years with a title.