Let It Ride
Mark Martin still says he's only going to race part time, but can NASCAR's grand old man really quit when he's ahead?
MARK MARTIN'S strong and characteristically uneventful fifth-place finish in Sunday's UAW DaimlerChrysler 400 in Las Vegas makes it clear that NASCAR's favorite pint-sized, 48-year-old racer should reconsider his stated plan to run a limited 22-race Nextel Cup schedule this year. Sure, after two decades as one of the circuit's fiercest and classiest competitors, the man has earned the right to leave on his own terms—which, according to his schedule, means that after this Sunday's race at Atlanta, he will sit out the March 25 event at Bristol, Tenn. But how can Martin switch off the engine when he's leading the point standings for the first time since 2002? Especially when he, famously, has never won a Cup title (though he has been runner-up four times)?
In October, when Martin left Roush Racing (after 19 years, 35 victories and 617 consecutive starts) for what was announced as a part-time gig at Ginn Racing, he emphasized his desire to run when and where he wanted. But after three top fives in the season's first three races ("a dream," Martin calls it, "just a dream"), the pressure to keep racing every week is building. If he runs well at Atlanta, will he reconsider skipping the Bristol race?
"You keep asking," says Martin, who appeared headed for a third-place finish at Vegas behind winner Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon until his car developed a slight handling problem in the closing laps. "No change yet."
The yet confirms that Martin, who has flirted with retirement for more than two years, has, in fact, been reenergized by his surprising success at Ginn. The team, taken over last year by real estate developer Bobby Ginn, formerly raced under the name MB2 Motorsports and won only twice over the past 10 seasons. For Martin the thrill of racing returned immediately, when he led the Daytona 500 entering the last lap only to lose by .020 of a second to Kevin Harvick. "I didn't ask for a win," a misty-eyed Martin said afterward. "I asked for a chance. Ginn gave me exactly what I asked for."
Martin's fast start has provided buzz to the early weeks of the Nextel Cup's grueling 10-month schedule. And he's been more than just good copy for sportswriters. A revered figure in the Cup garage, Martin is a living reminder of the old-school code of honor that used to characterize the circuit. His refusal to complain at Daytona about the absence of a yellow flag after a large wreck occurred behind him and Harvick on the final lap—a caution that would have frozen the field and given Martin the victory—was an example some young drivers would do well to remember the next time they feel like chucking a helmet at somebody. "Nobody wants to hear a grown man cry," Martin said by way of explanation.
Conventional wisdom holds that Ginn Racing doesn't have the resources to remain in contention for a spot in the Chase for the Nextel Cup. But there's no reason for Martin to make that a moot point by sitting out races such as Bristol just because he said he would. Staying in the game is a winning proposition.
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Last season, like most drivers and crew chiefs paired together for the first time, Jeff Gordon and Steve Letarte struggled to develop a chemistry. But now that they are starting to think alike, it's showing on the track. On Sunday in Las Vegas, Gordon finished second, behind teammate Jimmie Johnson, and moved to No. 2 in the points standings. This is the first time since 1995 that Gordon has started a season with three consecutive top 10 runs, which is a good omen for the number 24 team: He won the first of his four Cup championships that year.
In the Busch Series race in Vegas last Saturday, Jeff Burton and Kyle Busch tangled on the final lap, causing Busch to wreck and costing him a chance at the win. Instead of heaving his HANS device at his competitor—a stunt he pulled after a crash last spring in Charlotte—the once notoriously hotheaded Busch, who is still just 21, calmly congratulated Burton on his victory. Busch's newfound maturity was evident in Sunday's race as well: He cautiously drove an extremely loose car to a ninth-place finish, the sort of performance upon which title-winning seasons are built.