MARK MARTIN, 48, makes good on his promise to go to a part-time schedule, sitting out the March 25 Food City 500 at Bristol to end a string of 621 straight starts. Martin returns for 20 more Cup starts in 2007. Asked what he plans to do with Sundays off, he says, "I have a nice 42-inch plasma screen and TiVo, so I'll be [at home watching and] replaying the wrecks."
BENNY PARSONS, the 1973 Winston Cup champion and '75 Daytona 500 winner who went on to become a respected NASCAR television commentator, dies on Jan. 16 at age 65 following a battle with cancer. Born in North Wilkesboro, N.C., Parsons lived much of his life in Ellerbe, which was just a few miles from North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham. He moved as a teenager to Detroit, and it was there, after driving a cab, that he first started racing. Parsons made his NASCAR debut in '64 and went on to win 21 races in a two-decade Cup career.
AT TALLADEGA on April 29 Jeff Gordon moves past Dale Earnhardt into sixth place on the alltime Cup list with his 77th win. Earnhardt fans shower Gordon (left) with beer cans as he crosses the line—despite Dale Jr.'s plea that they throw toilet paper instead. ("It's hell to clean up," he says, "but it won't hurt anybody.") "I thought Junior had more power," says Gordon later. "I saw maybe one roll.
COMMENTING in April during his weekly Sirius Satellite radio show on a rash of questionable caution flags that had influenced recent race outcomes, Tony Stewart says, "I guess NASCAR thinks, Hey, wrestling worked, and it was for the most part staged, so I guess it's going to work in racing too. I can't understand how long the fans are going to let NASCAR treat them like they're stupid." NASCAR body-slams Stewart with a $10,000 fine and places him on probation, ostensibly for skipping a postrace media session in Phoenix on April 21.
DJ CALLS IT A DAY
IN FAILING to qualify the number 44 UPS Toyota for the May 6 Crown Royal Presents The Jim Stewart 400 at Richmond, Dale Jarrett snaps a streak of 424 consecutive starts, dating to Oct. 2, 1994. The '99 Cup champion and three-time Daytona 500 winner struggles throughout the remainder of the season and in October announces that he will retire following the All-Star race in May 2008. "I am able to walk away on my own terms," says Jarrett, 51, "and that's a good thing."
THE WILD JUAN II
ON THE first turn of the first lap of the Nextel Open All-Star race at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 19, Juan Pablo Montoya (42) goes for a three-wide pass, slides up the track and triggers a six-car wreck. "I had a good start, and that was it," he says.
DUELING at the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover on June 4, Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart (feuding since the Daytona 500) make contact, sending both cars into the wall. Under the ensuing caution, Stewart reaches the pits before Busch. With Stewart parked in his box, Busch (2) rolls down pit road and intentionally runs into Stewart's car, nearly hitting jackman Jason Lee. Busch apologizes, but NASCAR docks him 100 points, fines him $100,000 and places him on probation.
FAREWELL TO THE CHAIRMAN
BILL FRANCE JR., who served as NASCAR chairman from 1972 through 2003, dies on June 4 at age 74. France took over as chairman from his father, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr., and with shrewdness and an iron fist he led the sport's transformation into a multibillion-dollar national phenomenon.
THE RAZOR'S EDGE
CARL EDWARDS wins at Michigan on June 17, releasing his motor coach driver and best friend, Tom Giacchi, from 19 months of tonsorial torture. The hair-raising tale dates to the closing weeks of the 2005 season when, after Edwards's second straight win, Giacchi pledges not to shave until his driver's next victory. After 52 winless race weekends Giacchi is sporting a set of whiskers that earn him the nickname Yeti. "I'm very happy," a clipped Giacchi says upon his reemergence in Victory Lane. "I wish I could do backflips."
LEFT TURNS AND TURNBUCKLES
WWE CHAMPION John Cena (right) appears in June on Fast Cars and Superstars—The Gillette Young Guns Celebrity Race, a reality show in which sports and entertainment personalities compete under the guidance of NASCAR drivers. Cena hits it off with Carl Edwards, who attends a wrestling show with the champ. Their friendship suggests that 1) there's more to Tony Stewart's conspiracy theory than meets the eye, and 2) Matt Kenseth is lucky not to get tag-teamed at Martinsville.