With one hand holding on to his signature Panama hat and the
other clutching his clipboard, 62-year-old Jack Roush ran down
pit road at Dover International Speedway on Sunday, dodging race
cars rolling toward the garage. Though he still has a limp from
injuries suffered in the near-fatal crash in 2002 of a private
plane he was piloting, the Roush Racing team owner moved as
though bolting from a jailhouse. He was trying to catch up to his
car, driven by Mark Martin, who had just taken the checkered flag
in the MBNA 400 to end the driver's 72-race winless streak.
"The last time Mark won, I was in the hospital recovering from
the accident," Roush (who had suffered a head injury and multiple
fractures of his left leg) said in Victory Lane. "It made me want
to get back to racing. Now, after this race, I think Mark's
Indeed, 13 races into 2004--the midway point in NASCAR's "regular
season," which is followed by the new 10-race Chase for the
Championship--Martin, 45, has suddenly become an unlikely
contender. Last season he fell to 17th in the standings, the
worst finish in his 17 years with Roush, and as it is with any
struggling fortysomething in this youth-dominated racing era, he
appeared headed for the junkyard. But Martin, who was the points
runner-up in 1992, '94, '99 and 2002, has benefited from an
off-season engine-development alliance between Roush and fellow
Ford owner Robert Yates that has boosted the horsepower in
Martin's Ford Taurus.
Driving with a style best described as calm aggression, Martin
has climbed to 13th in the standings, trailing leader Dale
Earnhardt Jr. by 442 points. Under NASCAR's new format, any
driver in the top 10 or within 400 points of the leader after the
26-race regular season will advance to the championship series.
After Dover, only the top 10 were within 400 points of Earnhardt,
but another five, including Martin, were within 466.
"It's not any fun to race for 25th," said Martin after the 34th
win of his career. "This is where we need to be, but we still got
a little ways to go to make that top 10 cut."
Martin is the seventh-oldest full-time driver in Nextel Cup
racing, and his experience paid off on Sunday. For most of the
race he waited patiently, avoiding trouble. The tactic paid off
when, with 54 laps left, 19 cars were caught up in NASCAR's
biggest wreck of 2004. With 19 laps to go, rookie Kasey Kahne,
who appeared to be cruising to his first victory, slid on oil and
hit the wall in Turn 3. Martin, in second, grabbed his first lead
of the day and lead-footed it to the finish line.
One of the last moves that Dale Earnhardt Sr. made as the owner
of Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI) was to hire Michael Waltrip in
October 2000. At the time it seemed laughable: Waltrip hadn't won
in 462 starts. Yet Waltrip rewarded Earnhardt's faith in him by
winning the Daytona 500 in 2001 (the race in which Earnhardt was
killed) and '03. This year, however, has been a rough one for
Waltrip, 41, who, even after finishing sixth on Sunday, was 20th
in the point standings. That kind of performance doesn't sit well
with fellow DEI driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left, with Waltrip).
"Michael would probably want to finish his career at DEI, but the
chances of that happening I wouldn't say are 100 percent right
now," says Dale Jr., who appears in several buddy-buddy
commercials with Waltrip. "I don't make the decision. All I can
do is speculate, just like everybody else."
The decision on Waltrip's future will ultimately be made by DEI
owner Teresa Earnhardt, who has not commented on the driver's
status. But by the way Junior's talking, Waltrip might want to
start dusting off his resume.