Mark Martin: A Piece of NASCAR History Missed

Roberta CowanContributor INovember 23, 2009

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Kellogg's/CARQUEST Chevrolet, sits in his car in the garage prior to practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2009 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jason Smith/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Jason Smith/Getty Images

This weekend in Homestead, history was made.

Jimmie Johnson won his fourth championship in a row. Hendrick Motorsports accomplished the first one-two-three points finish in the history of the sport. But the piece of history that was missed was that either way the championship went, history was going to be made.

While the press handed out the nickname of Superman to Jimmie Johnson, perhaps it would have been better placed with his teammate and challenger Mark Martin.

Martin is the oldest driver to ever contend for the championship. He came out of semi-retirement to do that after two years. He finished second for the fifth time in his career. He did so with five wins, 14 top-fives, 21 top-10s and seven poles. He accomplished this at the age of 51.

Martin finished with all the style and grace of a champion but without the trophy to show for it. He gave credit where it was due and, at the same time, he took the credit he was due.

"My equipment is just as good," he said. "But I am not as good as Jimmie Johnson."

"For me, to even have a chance is pretty incredible. It just speaks volumes about this team and my first opportunity to work with (crew chief) Alan Gustafson. I feel really blessed to have had a chance.

"There's no frustration, man. There's none. I'm very proud of what we accomplished, and on top of all that, I had more fun than anybody. So how could you … what else can you say, man? I had a blast.

"It's been an honour and a privilege, and I didn't leave nothing (out on the track). I never left anything anywhere. We got beat, and we got beat under any scenario that might have happened. I didn't leave anything out there."

Martin has finished second in the Cup standings five times to a handful of the sport's greatest drivers: Dale Earnhardt (1990 and 1994), Jeff Gordon (1998), Tony Stewart (2002) and now Johnson.

While the obvious was on everyone's lips, Martin did what he had to do. He ran his race. He did it with the same determination and respect for others on the track that he has always had. You will not hear other competitors threaten retaliation on Mark Martin. Why? Because he doesn't drive that way. He races clean and respectful. He brings the car home in one piece and is always prepared to be the teacher or advisor to young and experienced drivers.

He gives true credence to the adage that "A Champion is as a Champion does in all things. The way he walks, the way he talks, the way he deals with those who can not advance his cause."

Mark Martin has raced his entire career like that. Quietly and respectfully.

He may not be the flashiest of drivers. He may not be the most reported on or talked about. But Mark Martin defines what it means to be an old-school champion.

When it comes time to race, he races hard and to the full extent of his ability and his equipment. When it comes time to talk about it, he does so with dignity and offers his competitors the same. Rarely do you hear him point fingers. Rarely do you hear disappointment or anger in his words. Martin conducts himself with class and grace regardless of what he may be thinking or feeling. He sets the example that many younger drivers would be wise to embrace and the standards many of them would be even wiser to strive to meet.

The obvious story this week was the fourth consecutive championship run of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus and the obvious dominance of Hendrick Motorsports. But perhaps the best story was harder to define and write.

It was the story of a champion that did not bring home the prize at the end of the rainbow but instead understood that it is the journey that holds the worth of the multi-colored bow. Mark Martin gave illustration to the truth that a true champion is just as gracious and strong in defeat as he is in victory. A picture that our world needs to see in this day and age.

Mark Martin finished second in the points. He finished 14th in the race. But Mark Martin again set the standards that our sport should be proud to be judged by. He walked the walk like a man. He raced the race like a racer. He didn't stroke. He didn't ride. He raced as hard as the car would allow him to him race and when it was over he came up short in the points. But Mark Martin did not fall short on being a champion. He proved himself that and a whole lot more. His influence and teachings in the sport will long live after him. He is a true champion.

This writer is grateful to have the opportunity to watch Martin work his magic with a car, with a team and with young and struggling proteges. Thank you, Mark, for keeping the faith in a system that is sometimes flawed and sometimes undeserving. Most of all, thank you for keeping old-school racing alive.