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 Bristol (Tenn.) 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 altogether 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 championship 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 (Va.) 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.
"Mark has been my NASCAR confidant," says Roush, who this year has a record five drivers in the Chase field. "He led the charge at Roush Racing. I couldn't have a warmer spot in my heart for him. And you know what? Mark is still at the top of his game."
Go back now to a boiling summer night in Jackson, Miss., in 1978, two years before Martin or Wallace would compete in a NASCAR race. At the time, in the small world of short-track racing, the two drivers had golden reputations. Martin was on his way to the first of three straight American Speed Association (ASA) championships, while Wallace was racking up Super Late Model wins. On this night, Martin and Wallace, already fast friends, were at Jackson Motor Speedway for an All-Pro event on the quarter-mile dirt oval. Martin wasn't racing. Instead, he acted as Wallace's crew chief.
Before the race started they tinkered under the hood of Wallace's Pontiac Firebird, trying to hit on the best setup. As soon as the green flag waved, Wallace shot to the front of the field. Midway through the race, though, his engine blew. With flames shooting out from under the hood, the car flew off the unwalled track at over 100 mph and plowed into a cornfield. Martin dashed across the track and into the farmland, but by the time he reached the car Wallace was already free of the wreck, standing out of harm's way and shaking his head at the sight of his barbecued hot rod.
"That was the coolest thing I've ever seen!" Martin yelled at Wallace. "You spun out of there like a helicopter. But man, I'm done being your crew chief."
"And you know what," Wallace says now, "that was, in fact, Mark's last day as my crew chief. Back then, we'd show up at the racetrack and put four springs and four shocks in our cars and then drive them and make changes as we went. It was seat-of-your-pants. But now [race teams] can hook up enough electrical devices to the car during a test [session] that it'll shock the s--- out of you. It's all computerized and no longer seat-of-the-pants, which makes the cars easier to drive. That's one reason you've got 18-year-old kids getting Cup rides. Heck, I was 28 before I got my first full-time ride."
Martin was 23 when he got his. "When we were coming up, you had to prove yourself before you got a chance," he says. "Owners didn't want young guys. They wanted veterans with judgment. The reason we're still doing this while pushing 50 is because we had to drive junk until we were 35 and wait for older guys to get out of the way. But that's not the way it is anymore."
Indeed, the sport is changing. To woo sponsors, many owners search for telegenic twentysomething drivers. And as Wallace noted, teams are increasingly reliant on engineers, which means driver inexperience can prove to be an advantage in making the car go faster. Here's why: When an engineer makes an adjustment to the suspension, giving the car more speed in the corners, the change might also make the car handle differently. Experienced drivers are more likely to complain that the car doesn't "feel right" and request another change to get the right feel but at the cost of speed. On the other hand, the callow driver who doesn't have a well-developed sense of feel will simply mash the gas pedal and go.
"I don't want to sound like I'm complaining, but the sport has really, really changed," says Wallace, sitting in Martin's motor coach five hours before the recent Bristol race. "I've had a wonderful time, but I'm tired of living on buses and tired of being gone [from home]. I don't want to be a guy who holds on too long. I want to go out on the top of my game."
A few minutes later Wallace shakes Martin's hand and heads off for an appearance at a sponsor's suite. Martin soon leaves as well, headed for the garage. Where, exactly, will these two old drivers end up? Over the next 10 weeks, we'll find out.