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The classiest driver in NASCAR? No question here.

 The color of money: Mark Martin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  By Mike Mulhern


  Mark Martin is not just one of the classiest guys ever to wear a NASCAR driving suit but also one of the most enduring, and most well respected.
  Martin, who lives just down the road now from Daytona International Speedway, will be celebrating an anniversary this season – 30 years ago he made his first NASCAR start….as a brash kid from Arkansas, with a definite attitude about life, and a hard driving style.
  And on his own.

  Back in the days when an independent could actually have a legitimate shot at some of this glory.
  And Mark got a good dose of it early on.
  But then the economics of it all got to him, and he had to fold his tent, and he vanished.
  Until several years later when Jack Roush, then a newcomer himself to this part of the sport, decided to take a chance on a guy who some figured was washed up.
   And Martin and Roush surprised just about everyone. Winning races quickly. Challenging for championships. Enduring heartbreaks, enough to break lesser men.
   For 19 years Martin and Roush were inseparable. Like father and son.
   Then they split. Martin was ready to cut back to a part-time NASCAR deal, and Roush couldn't put together that deal.
   So Martin moved on….to a now four-year odyssey with more than enough twists and turns and high drama.
   First, he joined a promising Bobby Ginn venture, a part-time ride that opened on a strikingly strong note in 2007, with Martin coming within a bumper of winning the Daytona 500….losing on a slow caution by NASCAR, as the field crashed behind him. Martin in the moments afterwards put on one of the classiest displays of grace under pressure, after one of his toughest losses. Martin followed that with strong runs that put him atop the tour standings, and led to speculation he might abandon the part-time job and make another full-time run for the title. But Martin stuck to his guns.
    That summer, in a strange sequence of events, the Ginn venture went belly up, the team being saved from collapse by a quick merger with Dale Earnhardt Inc.
   Then came the decline and fall from grace of DEI.
   And in a totally unexpected move, Rick Hendrick decided to take a gamble on Martin and made him an offer he couldn't refuse – a full-time ride as teammate with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon.
   Martin rose to the challenge.
   Their first season together Martin had one of his greatest years ever, winning five races and coming within a hair of winning that long-elusive championship.
   That was 2009.
   And 2010, well, it wasn't what Martin or anyone expected. A downer.
   Now it's 2011, and Martin is heading into what looks like his final season as a full-time Cup driver.
   And what happens in 2012, well, Martin isn't even interested in looking that far ahead yet.
   Martin -- a physical fitness buff and workout fanatic for 23 years now, even wrote a book on it – has become a surprisingly charismatic leader in the NASCAR garage over the past half dozen years. His code of honor on the track is legend.
   Now 52, Martin shows no signs of wearing out or willingness to give up this lifestyle career.
   But his next steps…..
   "I want to make a contribution to Hendrick Motorsports, and to make them glad I was here," Martin says.
   And this season that will be with a new crew chief, Lance McGrew. In team owner Rick Hendrick's post-season swapfest, Martin, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all changed teams, with Gordon getting the ride in Alan Gustafson's car, Martin taking over Lance McGrew's car, and Earnhardt moving to Steve Letarte's car.
    How well all that may work will likely take at least two months to see.
    The goal may appear designed mostly to help Earnhardt, who has struggled lately, and who is now working out of the same shop at five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.
    But Martin has a goal of his own: "I would really like to help Lance achieve the results and recognition he's so capable of. That's what happened when I started working with Alan."
   McGrew and Earnhardt never quite clicked during their 18 months together, after Hendrick moved veteran Tony Eury Jr. out of the crew chief slot, after a so-so run of a couple seasons.
   Gustafson, when Martin came onboard, was considered one of the best untold stories in the garage, for his work with then up-and-coming Kyle Busch, because Busch himself, with his outgoing personality, got most of the headlines for the team's success. So Martin's quick success with Gustafson in 2009 showed just how talented Gustafson really is.
    Martin would like to do the same with McGrew.
    Yes, it would be nice to win a bunch more races, maybe make a good run at the championship again, of course, but Martin says bringing McGrew back to the top is really his goal.
   "Those are the things that are more important to me," Martin says.
    "I'm not selfish. This sport has been my life; it's been so good to me. So I don't think about me. I like to see people succeed. And if we do that with Lance, I'll get my success too.
    "Lance was certainly beat up last year. We have not managed to get Junior in the right stuff…and a lot of crew chiefs have gotten blamed. It's the whole organization's failure. But it's not Lance's failure, it's not Tony Jr.'s failure. You'll just have that in this sport, and it's unfortunate.
   "Lance and Dale ran better than us in a lot of races last year. They ran good enough to win in New Hampshire, and they ran great in Daytona. But it was just not up to Junior Nation's expectations.
   "Same thing with Alan. He went through a tough year with Casey Mears. And when he was with Kyle (Busch), Kyle got a lot of the credit when it went good.
   "And when we did good (in 2009), Alan got a lot of the credit…for helping an old man who we thought wasn't going to be able to achieve those kinds of things again.
   "Man, this sport has been so wonderful to me. It's been wonderful. I could have never dreamed of having so much success…and such a full life as it has provided."
    Martin's personality turnaround in this sport during the last four years has been striking.
   For years he almost seemed to have to drag himself through each season, as if beset by too many worries.
   But during that brief two-year span of running a partial schedule, he appeared to become rejuvenated.
    And the past two years, even though back on the full grind, and running for the championship, he has carried himself much better, and seems much more at peace with himself and his life here.
   "I'm a fast learner in some respects, and a slow learner in some respects," Martin says. "Personality traits aren't something that change easily. And that's part of a personality trait of mine….the change in my attitude from 2006….
   "I was always an incredibly driven guy, but I wasn't always a happy guy. And I've been much happier since 2007….to have a break and to assess what I would like out of life and what's important to me.
   "That break, 2007 and 2008, made all the difference to me. When I realized how much I love this sport, and what it means to me.
   "In 2005 all I wanted to do was go home and lay on the couch.
   "Now I want to go to the race track forever. This is my life. Ever since I was 15. The people, the competitors, you guys, the fans….this is what I want to do.
   "Back then maybe I wasn't so sure this was what I wanted. I'd lost my dad, and only took a day off, because I was in a championship battle and couldn't life. There was a lot of built-up frustration in my life. I wasn't spending as much time as I wanted to with my son.
   "Finally I realized, after I had time to take a break and catch my breath, and sit home and watch those races on TV from the couch….I really had a perfect deal in 2007 and 2008, and never saw myself coming  back full time.
   "But then this deal happened, and it was for one year, and then it became three…and they've been the best three years of my life.
   "Now if I can just find a way (in 2012) to make a contribution…..that's all everybody in the garage right now wants to talk to me about. But I'm not ready to talk about just what."
   After all, there just might be a championship to win here first.



Mark Martin

Very good and inspiring story!! He's a real good man...

Mark Martin

A very good and inspiring story. Mr Martin is a very good man and I have had the privilege of meeting him.

Classiest Driver

Nothing against Mark but I do believe Ned Jarrett is the classiest driver hence the nickname "Gentelman Ned". Mark does get high marks though for class.

Sorry, but the classiest

Sorry, but the classiest driver in NASCAR would be Richard Petty. Retired when he was ready to. Unlike Martin who has said... how many times? Petty stopped driving when he was ready to; not when everyone said he should. He even admitted that he was racing because he enjoyed it; not because he was planning on suddenly setting the world on fire again. Didn't care what others thought. He was, and is, his own man. He never got behind the wheel again after retiring, except for a pace lap, out of respect for his wife's concern. That's classy.

Sorry Mark, but you lost me at the "I'm going to retire after this season; wait, I mean this season; wait, this one".


Hey Mike did you forget his last year at Roush. Every week he was WHINING that he was tired of racing and being away from his family. So Jack cut him loose like MM wanted, then MM decides he is not ready to retire but wants to run a partial schedule instead. It is late in the season and Roush has already made commitments to other drivers by the time MM decides to change his mind. So now MM dumps Roush, the TEAM that built him.
What happened to his son and his racing career that MM was SO CONCERNED about. Sounds like MM is just a whiny old man that was crying because he didn't get what he wanted. The person with the MOST CLASS currently driving is Jeff Burton by a LONG ways over wrinkles Martin. Oh wait he has had more surgery to remove even more of his wrinkles hasn't he. MM will find a spot as a start and park driver next year because they like the old semi retired drivers that have a past champions provisional to fall back on to get in a race. Oh never mind that because an IROC championship doesn't count.

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