Mark Martin: If 2011 Is His Final Year, Expect Him To Have Some Fun

Paul Carreau@@PaulCarreauAnalyst IJanuary 20, 2011

BRISTOL, TN - MARCH 21:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, stands next to his car on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway on March 21, 2010 in Bristol, Tennessee.  (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images

For Mark Martin, it seems like most of the last six seasons have been more of a question of uncertainty about what the next year would bring. Instead of focusing on driving, or retirement, he has been having to answer the question "what's next?"

It started in the 2005 season. That year was supposed to be Martin's final year in Sprint Cup. He decided it was time to start putting more focus on his son Matt's future in racing than his own.

Martin had planned on running a full Truck Series schedule in 2006. He felt there would be no pressure in running the truck series, and he could go out and just have fun. The season is also one third shorter than that of the Sprint Cup.

The 2005 season was dubbed "the salute to you". It was Martin's farewell to the fans, in a season that was seeing another one of NASCAR's stars, Rusty Wallace, also embarking on a retirement tour.

Then, late in the season, Martin's farewell was put on hold. It had already been announced that Jamie McMurray was slated to take over driving duties of the No. 6 car for Martin in 2007. That left the seat vacant for the upcoming 2006 season.

So, Martin stepped back up to the plate. Feeling that he owed it to Jack Roush for all that he had done for his career, Martin agreed to come back for one more year and help out the team.

Instead of taking it easy, 2006 was actually one of Martin's busiest years. Aside from running the full Sprint Cup schedule, he also ran in 14 out of 25 truck races. The Sprint Cup series provided a respectable season, but in the trucks, he was dominant when he was on the track. He won six races that year, including the season opener at Daytona.

So as 2006 wound down, Martin's future was again in question. It was clear he would not be returning to Roush Racing, so an opportunity arose for Martin to drive the No. 01 U.S Army car for Ginn Racing.

The opportunity was perfect for Martin. He was only going to be running in 24 of 36 events, all while serving as a mentor for Aric Almirola, the supposed heir apparent to that car.

The season started nearly perfect for Martin. He missed out on winning the Daytona 500 by a bumper to Kevin Harvick. He would run in the first four races that season, and after the fourth event, the supposed part-time Martin was actually the points leader.

Once again, questions surfaced. Should Martin change his plans and run the full season to try and win a championship? The answer, for Martin, was no. He stuck to his guns and relinquished his seat, and his point lead.

The 2008 season was met with the same opportunity. Ginn Racing had merged with Dale Earnhardt Inc., and it asked Martin to run another partial schedule, this time driving the famous No. 8 Chevrolet. Martin once again couldn't say no.

He once again had a decent season, posting nearly identical numbers as the previous season. So, after two part-time seasons, was it finally time for Martin to get out of the sport, and coast into retirement?

Not exactly. Late in the 2008 campaign, a huge announcement was made concerning Martin. It was announced that he would join the flagship organization of NASCAR, Hendrick Motorsports, on a full-time basis.

The decision came as a result, not only of Martin's desire to still race, and his love for the sport, but also from his son's decision to step back from racing a little bit.

Any question about Martin's abilities to still handle a full-time season soon disappeared. Martin earned a career-high seven pole positions driving the No. 5 Chevrolet. Eight races into the 2009 season, Martin went back to victory lane for the first time in three and a half years, at Phoenix.

He would go on to win a total of five races that season, his highest total since 1998. He also finished runner up to Jimmie Johnson in championship points, his fifth career runner up finish in the championship race, all without having won a points championship.

For the first time in years, Martin's future wasn't the subject of any questioning. He had a secure ride for 2010, and appeared to be at the top of his game, and a viable challenger for the Sprint Cup.

But 2010 was a letdown of a season, as he failed to qualify for the Chase, ultimately finishing 13th in the points. And once again, questions about Martin's future rose to the surface.

Midway through the season, it was announced that Kasey Kahne would be replacing Martin in the No. 5 starting in 2012. But this led many to wonder if Kahne would replace him sooner than that. Week in and week out, Martin had to answer the question of where would he be in 2011 and beyond.

He held firm that he would pilot the car once again in 2011, and that he had no set plans beyond that, but was not ready to hang up his helmet just yet.

So as the 2011 season quickly approaches, we are all wondering what lies ahead for the now 52-year-old Martin. He has decided that this season, once again, is going to be about having fun.

He has signed on to drive four Nationwide Series events, driving the No. 32 Dollar General Chevrolet for Turner Motorsports, and he is also scheduled to drive in two truck series races for the team. All of these extra curricular events for Martin will take place at tracks that he loves to race on.

Once the season gets under way, we all know that it won't take very long for all of the questions about Martin and his future to start being asked. But whatever the answers turn out to be, if this does end up being the end of the line, let's just hope that he goes out on his terms.

But as a writer, and more importantly, as a fan, I hope that this is not the end for Martin. I would love to see him race for as long as he can. But regardless of how much longer Martin's career continues, I have every intention of just sitting back, and having fun watching Mark race. I just hope I have as much fun watching as he does driving.