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With two races left before the Chase for the Sprint Cup, NASCAR heads to Auto Club Speedway in California. California is a state known for many things, from fine wines to celebrities to the greatest football game of Brett Favre’s career, a 41-7 rout of the Oakland Raiders the day after his father, Irvin, passed away.
With all the attention Favre’s been getting as of late, I feel it’s fair to direct our attention to a driver who similarly can’t retire from the sport he loves: Mark Martin.
One of the reasons why I’ve been pulling so hard for Favre this season is because I’ve heard much of the same criticism used against Martin, in his many attempts to retire. Sometimes it’s just too hard to walk away from what you’ve been doing your whole life.
Truth is, Martin’s been on top of his game these past few years the same way Favre has: producing enough to warrant continued mentions as one of the best in the field week in and week out.
Martin led the NEXTEL Cup points through four races last year, and even still had a shot at the Chase after missing the first few of his 12 scheduled off weeks. This year, despite running in equipment of far lesser quality, Martin has nearly equaled his top-10s from last year (eight so far, compared to 11 last year) and nearly won at Phoenix. He also won the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas.
Even more important, however, is what Martin’s done to make part-time driving a viable option for aging stars, especially splitting rides with development drivers.
Originally, the plan was to put two “retiring” drivers in one car to split a full season. In a 2005 interview with Claire B. Lang, Martin dismissed the option of splitting a schedule between two retiring drivers as “far-fetched” and “hard to do right.”
At the time, Jack Roush was looking to fill the No. 6 Ford for 2006 while waiting for Jamie McMurray to take over the car in 2007. Roush’s idea was to split the car between Martin and Rusty Wallace for the 2006 season.
While the Martin-Wallace deal never materialized, Martin has run part-time schedules in Sprint Cup with development drivers the past few seasons, and the results have been surprisingly decent.
Martin’s average finishes were 14.5 in 2007 and 13.9 this year, not far out of line from his career average of 13.3.
Last season, the No. 01 Ginn Racing Chevrolet that Martin split with Regan Smith sat 17th in owners’ points, better than 16 cars to start all 36 races and 28 that attempted full schedules.
This year, the No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet that Martin and Aric Almirola share is 15th in owners’ points, ahead of 19 other teams to start all 24 races.
Martin won’t race this weekend at California, but has an impressive record at the track: 15 starts with 7 top-10s and a win in the track’s second race ever in 1998. His 13.3 average finish at the track is eighth best out of active Sprint Cup drivers.
In his 700th career Sprint Cup start, which occurred at California earlier this season, Martin started and finished 16th in the No. 8 Principal Financial Chevrolet.
Although Martin will have to wait until next year to make a full-blown comeback, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports in his first full-time schedule since 2006, he’ll certainly continue to face the same criticisms as Favre, for soldiering on with a different team for the love of the sport.
But, as has Favre, Martin will continue to persevere in his chosen sport, going until he simply can go no longer.
Before the green flag drops on this weekend’s action, here are this week’s five Quick Hits:
5. Former Formula One driver Scott Speed will make his Sprint Cup debut by the end of this season in a third Toyota for Team Red Bull. Former Daytona 500 winner Richard "Slugger" Labbe and TRB’s test team will pit the car. Speed may run a full-time Sprint Cup schedule next season after winning a Truck Series race at Dover and challenging for the ARCA title this year.
4. Chip Ganassi Racing will definitely field two cars next season, as longtime backer Target has re-signed with the team. Juan Pablo Montoya will drive one car, with Dario Franchitti perhaps making his return in the other.
3. David Reutimann will return to the No. 00 Toyota at Michael Waltrip Racing in 2009, with an 18-race sponsorship deal from Aaron’s Rent. Reutimann drove his first race for Aaron’s in 2005 and currently sits fourth in Nationwide points driving for the company. Reutimann’s father, Buzzie, raced on short tracks in Florida in cars carrying the No. 00.
2. Reed Sorenson will land on his feet in 2009, after signing a multi-year deal to drive for Gillett Evernham Motorsports. While nothing else is a certainty at this point, expect Sorenson to drive the No. 10 car next season, taking into account the team’s issues finding a full-time sponsor for its third car.
1. After a post-race tangle last weekend in Bristol, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch have both been placed on probation for the next six Sprint Cup races, effective this weekend. Unhappy about being muscled out of the way in the final laps of the race, Busch drove his right-front fender up into Edwards’ door panel after the race had ended. In retaliation, Edwards followed Busch to the bottom of the track and spun the No. 18 Toyota.
Finally, congratulations to last week’s winners: Busch in the Truck Series, Brad Keselowski in the Nationwide Series, and Edwards in Sprint Cup.