Nearly five years ago now, Mark Martin announced that 2005 would be his last season. Dubbed the “Salute to You Tour,” Martin took that season to thank his fans for their support of his career, and make one final run at NASCAR Cup Series championship.
The FOX broadcasters gave him a rocking chair for his “golden years,” he brought out all his old paint schemes to run periodically throughout the year; everything pointed toward a permanent retirement.
Then, a funny thing happened later that summer: Jaime McMurray had signed to replace Martin, but starting in 2007, not 2006. Then, Kurt Busch did the unforeseen: he left Roush Racing (with which he won the championship the year before) and signed the same deal to join Penske Racing in 2007.
Common sense eventually prevailed as McMurray and Busch got out of their contracts with their current teams to make their switches for 2006. But, a problem still remained for Jack Roush.
McMurray took Busch’s No. 97 car, and Martin’s car was vacant (remember, they were down a driver with Busch’s departure). With no young drivers in the pipeline (Carl Edwards was already in the Cup Series), Roush needed a driver, and he asked his friend to make one more go.
That chain of events started a snow ball that has led to this: Martin continues to run, now full-time after a pair of partial seasons, and has signed on for another full-time season in 2010.
He is NASCAR’s version of Brett Favre: a long-time veteran who, despite a career spanning more than decade (or close to one in the case of Favre), can still get it done.
But, unlike Favre, Martin is revered for his refusal to quit and is easily the most admired driver in the garage. Favre, on the other hand, has become more of a hindrance than a hero, as his saga has seen many fans (and journalists and fellow athletes) and turn on him for hanging around into his 40’s.
Why? Neither is “out to pasture” regarding performance on the field, or track. Each of worthy of being their sports’ Hall of Fame (Martin deserves a spot, even if he hasn’t won a Daytona 500 or a title).
How is it that one is more of a hero than he ever was while the other is Public Enemy No. 1 in the minds of many?
Well, it’s simple really. We all know Favre’s story (and all to well if you ask me, given the obscene amount of coverage it received last summer).
His retirement saw the Packers name Aaron Rodgers the starter, and move on to the future. Of course, Favre decided later on that he was only joking, and tried to come back to “his” team.
Management said “no,” as they had already moved on; to take Rodgers out of the starting role would be an injustice to him, and Favre hadn’t done any offseason workouts to keep in football shape.
Plus, his noncommittal statements about returning during the prior three years (which saw them draft Rodgers as an insurance policy) couldn’t have done him much help.
For trying to holding his team hostage, attempting to keep a youngster on the bench after he’d been told he’d start, and for generally mishandling the whole “I might quit, but I’m not sure” thing for three years, Favre has been nearly crucified by fans and journalists.
Conversely, Mr. Martin, who has also been noncommittal on his retirement at times, never did hold a team he was on hostage.
He never told Jack Roush “I’m retiring,” go through the entire winter at home, and then decide he wants to come back, asking the team kick to the curb the driver they got to replace him.
Martin only ever accepted and discussed offers from other teams when THEY made them; he never initiated those discussions.
It was Bobby Ginn who got Martin to run that first partial schedule in 2007, partnering him with rookie Regan Smith.
Now, Smith was eventually left out in the cold, but that was a result of the fast demise of Ginn Racing and merger with DEI. Smith would have likely stayed with the team had they survived.
With the DEI merger, Martin took over the No. 8 car, sharing it with Aric Almirola for 2008, before leaving to run full-time with Hendrick this year. Like Smith, Almirola was eventually left out in the cold, but due to sponsorship and funding.
Martin never displaced either of those drivers from their rides; in fact, his presence in the car for most races likely kept those teams in the top 35 in owner points, making it more feasible for his rookie teammates to run the races they were entered.
Now, you might be wondering about Brad Keselowski. The young Nationwide Series standout is a Hendrick/JR Motorsports development driver, and his top 10 at Darlington backed up his Talladega win nicely; he should be a fixture in years to come.
But, is Martin keeping him from entering the series, in the same manner that Favre nearly kept Rodgers from finally taking a starting role?
Not necessarily. Rick Hendrick is not limited to the four teams he owns; he also gives equipment out to Stewart-Haas Racing.
Could they farm him to that team for a year of Cup experience (as Joe Menzer discussed on NASCAR’s Web site)? Or what about propping up James Finch’s team to run a full year and him?
Either scenario is possible, and may be in the pipeline. Of course, Auto Racing is unique in that sense: a team can farm a driver out to another team, whole still keeping him (or her) under contract.
Has that helped Martin keep his admiration, even if he has hung around after declaring he would retire?
Well, it’s helped, although the two wins he has this year has certainly made it clear he’s as good as he’s ever been.
Why should he stop of he’s having fun and winning races? He shouldn’t if he doesn’t want to, and he isn’t hindering anyone from driving in the process.
By still kicking his competitors’ tails, and by not burning any bridges to get there, Mark Martin is clearly NASCAR’s version of Brett Favre, but has managed to keep his reputation fully intact.
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