Pride, dignity, respect and "age is just a number" are a few ways to describe the career of NASCAR’s most dignified driver in the past decade.
Heartbreak, misfortune, calamity and "the agony of defeat" can also be mixed in to get the true meaning of how Mark Martin, driver of the No. 5 GoDaddy.com-sponsored Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, has dealt with the emotional rollercoaster he has ridden throughout his career.
No other driver has paid the piper so many times without receiving the treasures that are usually rewarded to those who diligently seek to be the best.
Martin has been through many battles during his 27 years in the NASCAR cup series. He has logged over 219,306 gut wrenching laps and 278,583.2 long, hard-fought miles during the 758 races in which he has competed.
Along with driving in three different decades, starting back in 1981, Martin will see the beginning of yet another decade as NASCAR’s oldest full-time cup driver when the 2010 season kicks off in February.
Accomplishments for this well-respected driver have not come easy. The most notable ones have miraculously escaped after being a stone’s throw away from his grasp.
Martin, who turned 51 on Jan. 9 could very well become NASCAR’s oldest Daytona 500 champion, surpassing the mark set by Bobby Allison back in 1988 at the age of 50. If he could only get the monkey off of his back long enough to cross the finish line ahead of his fellow drivers.
In 27 tries at the famed 2.5-mile oval, Martin’s best finish was third back in 1995. Fate almost dealt him a winning hand in 2007, when he finished second behind Kevin Harvick by a mere 0.02 seconds.
Martin had just switched teams and manufacturers. He came over from Roush Fenway Racing after a 19-year stretch driving the No.6 Valvoline/Viagra-sponsored Ford to take over part-time driving duties with Regan Smith in the No. 01 U.S. Army-sponsored Ginn Racing Chevrolet.
This one-of-a-kind driver has always been a gentleman around the garage area. He never once complained when NASCAR failed to throw a caution after Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Busch caused a wreck, which involved 17 cars on the last lap.
Martin led the last 26 of 27 laps of the race before cars started crashing on the final lap, but the caution surprisingly never came out.
Had NASCAR waved the yellow flag, the 48-year Martin would have been declared the winner. Instead, it was Harvick who came from seven cars back to overtake him at the finish line.
"All I asked for was a chance to win, and they (Ginn Racing and the No. 01 U.S. Army Team) gave me that. I never asked for the trophy, I just asked for a real shot at it, and that's exactly what I had—my best-ever opportunity to win the Daytona 500," said Martin.
"I just can't tell you how bad I wanted it. We gave it our best shot—we were within inches of getting it done."
"When I looked up there at the end, I was minus any pushers," explained Martin. "I didn't have any help to get it done, and that's the way it goes."
It would be a huge understatement to say Martin has lost the desire to someday become a Daytona 500 or NASCAR champion before he retires.
Ron Hornaday Jr. proved this past season that NASCAR championships can be won at the age of 51. He parlayed his six NASCAR Camping World Truck series victories into his fourth championship.
Hornaday, who also won championships in 1996, 1998 and 2007, showed the younger generation truck driver that age is just a number.
When you begin to look around at other motorsports drivers who have excelled during their golden years, 14-time NHRA Funny Car champion John Force quickly comes to mind.
Force has won six championships since turning 50 in 1999, which also includes championships at the ages of 51, 52, 53, 55 and most recently, in 2006 at the age of 57.
Martin’s 2009 season was one of the strongest seasons he has had since 1998. He took his Roush Fenway Ford to victory lane seven times, while finishing second behind Jeff Gordon, who won his third championship with 13 wins.
Martin, who qualified for his fourth chase while finishing second in the point standings for a record fifth time, fell short by 141 points behind his teammate and Sprint cup champion Jimmie Johnson.
He compiled some really impressive numbers for the 2009 season. He won five races, had an average starting position of 9.8, an impressive average finish of 13.7 and led 805 laps—his best since 1998.
At the age of 50, Martin proved you are only as old as you feel with a season that got better with time.
Now that he is a year older and wiser at the age of 51, exactly what the 2010 season has in store for Martin is anybody’s guess, including Martin.
“I'm not Mr. Optimistic, I'm not Mr. Pessimistic, I'm Mr. Realistic. And realistically speaking, I can't tell you what the result will be in 2010.”
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