Mark Martin Does It His Way And Keeps On Rolling

Mark Martin has been a part of NASCAR for over three decades and he's not ready to retire just yet. He'll be with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012, competing on a limited schedule.

Mark Martin is very much like “Old Man River” of song – He just keeps rolling along.

The driver from Batesville, Ark., will continue his long NASCAR racing career, which began in 1981, sputtered and then resumed at full strength in 1988.

He’s 53 years old and is one of a handful of stock car drivers who have enjoyed extended careers that have kept them active well past the time athletes in other professional sports retire.

This year he is scheduled to enter 25 of 36 races for Michael Waltrip Racing, the fourth team for which he’s driven since 2007.

Martin’s limited schedule means he will have no chance to win a championship but I think he really doesn’t care. He’s been in the thick of a title chase many times in his career and, frankly, no longer needs or wants the pressure.

I think Martin has long realized he’s not going to capture what has eluded him for over three decades – a championship.

So he’s not even going to bother to try.

Like everyone and everything else, Martin has changed with time. There are more lines in his craggy face, for example. There’s a lot more silver in his closely cropped hair.

But the things that matter most to any successful competitor – body, mind and heart – are still very much part of the fabric that makes Martin the man he is.

I can remember a time when a young Martin had all the heart and spirit to race in NASCAR full time, but lacked the foresight to understand the harsh financial realities of the sport.

In 1981, he ran five races with his own team. He was impressive. He won two pole positions and finished third at Martinsville – which gave him the top-five run he so coveted.

Then, in 1982, he took the plunge. With his own team and sponsorship from Apache Stove – it wasn’t much – he announced his intention to run a full Winston Cup schedule.

Then 22 years old, Martin looked like a boy trying to make it a man’s world.

However, this “boy” again displayed a considerable amount of competitive skill and savvy. While he failed to finish 11 races – largely because of mechanical maladies – he scored eight top-10 finishes and wound up among the top five twice.

Then the money dried up. As eager as Martin was to remain in NASCAR, he was still a newcomer and a youngster who couldn’t exude enough influence to raise dollars.

His small operation collapsed. He had to work for others. In 1983 he drove in 16 races for four different owners.

Then he was gone.

He returned to the Midwest where he had won championships and fashioned a career as one of the best short-track drivers anywhere.

In NASCAR circles, he was forgotten.

But fate stepped in. When Jack Roush formed his first NASCAR team he was aware of Martin’s talents – and he also knew Martin was readily available.

Roush has always been a man of detail when it comes to driver contracts and so it was with Martin. As much as Roush was aware of Martin’s driving talent, he also had knowledge of his vices.

Roush’s deal with Martin was contingent on one thing – the driver had to stop drinking.

Martin adopted a strict workout regimen years ago and the fact that he has long been physically fit has undoubtedly contributed to his longevity.

Martin did. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. He replaced the bottle with bodybuilding and attacked it with fervor.

Rigorous workouts became his regimen, no matter where he was. It wasn’t long before this began to catch on with other drivers and physical fitness became an important part of any race preparation.

Martin’s strength and stamina have served him well. Without them, I believe his career would have long been over.

Martin rose to glory with Roush. He spent 19 seasons with the team owner, won 40 races and finished among the top 10 in points 16 times – 12 in succession.

He was second in points three times.

Martin did announce a “farewell tour” six years ago, but that dissolved when he agreed to compete on a limited schedule with Bobby Ginn in 2007.

I sometimes wonder if Martin would have taken retirement if his son, whom he nurtured as an aspiring driver, had not lost interest in motorsports.

Martin was back on a full-time schedule with Rick Hendrick in 2009 and, for the fourth time in his career, Martin ended up No. 2 in points.

Martin’s agreed tenure with Hendrick came to an end in 2011.

Martin is a good match for Waltrip. He brings a wealth of experience and knowledge to a team with much younger drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer. They can, and should, learn much from him.

Also, Martin is certainly capable of winning races, something not lost on the Waltrip organization.

With his limited schedule, competition is much more suited to what Martin seems to want, which is to avoid a weekly grind and make racing fun.

Not a thing wrong with that.

In fact, it’s the perfect arrangement for Martin. Retirement will come later, when the desire to walk away strikes him.

For now, Mark Martin remains very much in possession of what every competitor needs – body, mind and heart.

Stewart’s Timing Perfect In First Chase Race

Making the right moves involves timing. And it appears Tony Stewart knows something about timing. At least, he showed that on Monday on the race track.

Disappointed and frustrated for most of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season in a fruitless search for victory, Stewart finally won his first race of the year in the Geico 400 at Chicagoland Speedway.

The race was the first of 10 in the Chase and Stewart’s victory propelled him to second place in the point standings, just seven points behind new leader Kevin Harvick.

Since Stewart came into the Chicagoland race ninth in points – after sweating out several weeks of doubt that he would make it at all – finishing first was indeed a good move.

Stewart’s late-race strategy also proved to be a good move. The Geico 400 was yet another fuel mileage race. As usual, most of the competitors were doing their best to save gas, but many of them ran out anyway.

On the last lap, several of the lead-lap cars bailed, the victims of empty gas tanks. Had they been able to run the distance the final standings would have looked much different.

Stewart, however, followed his preservation strategy perfectly – another good move – and it paid off handsomely.

“You couldn’t pick a better weekend to get that first win of the year than here at Chicago, obviously,” said Stewart, who has now won at least one race in each of the last 13 seasons, his entire Cup career. “We felt like there were three or four opportunities earlier in the year that we let some get away from us.  But we have struggled.

“We’ve had a miserable year. But the last three weeks have really started coming into it. We had a really good run in Atlanta. Good solid run last week at Richmond.

“Then to come out this weekend, I don’t think Darian (Grubb, crew chief), or either one of us, thought that we had as good a car as we needed to win today. But it didn’t take long in the race to figure out that we were pretty solid.

“It was just getting the track position.”

Stewart got that position. Afterward it was a matter of saving fuel.

The final scenario was set up on lap 213, when a caution period began after debris was found on the track. The leaders pitted. Martin Truex Jr. stayed out on the track and was in first place when the race restarted.

Matt Kenseth was second and Stewart third.

Ten laps later Kenseth passed Truex Jr. to take the lead and 10 laps after that, Stewart moved into first place after dueling with Kenseth.

Truex Jr. pitted on lap 254 with just 13 laps left in the race. From that point on it was obvious none of the leaders was going to pit. The plan was to finish the distance and in some cases, it would be a huge gamble, as some crew chiefs felt their drivers would come up as much as three laps short.

“At the end you hate to have to play the fuel mileage game,” Stewart said. “But that’s just the way the caution came out. And we came in and got fuel and Darian told me we had to save a lap’s worth of fuel.

“So we had a whole run to do it. But we kept a lot of pressure on Matt and finally got by him and once we got out to a second and a half, two-second lead we could start backing off the pace and start saving fuel.

“And I felt like I’d saved enough to get us to the end. But we came off of Turn 2 after we got the checkered and the fuel pressure was down to two pounds, and it stayed there until just shortly after we picked up the checkered flag at the flag stand. We didn’t do any wild burnout or anything like that and ran out before we ever got on pit road.

“So we were closer than I wanted to be. But we didn’t have anything to lose. Where we’re at in The Chase right now, we had to press.”

Virtually everyone in the Chase still in contention for a top-10 finish pressed, too – it’s expected of them in the “playoffs.”

But it didn’t pay off all around. On the last few laps, especially the last, so many cars turned toward pit road or fell off the pace it looked like a fleet of commuters on the freeway backed up at an exit ramp.

Among those who ran out of gas were five-time champion Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Newman, Mark Martin and Kenseth.

Newman finished eighth, Johnson 10th and Kenseth 21st. All are championship contenders.

Their misfortune helped other competitors gain position at race’s end. Harvick, last week’s winner at Richmond, moved into second place.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who had a good run most of the day, wound up in third place. Carl Edwards moved up to fourth and Brad Keselowski was fifth.

Earnhardt Jr., another driver concerned about making the Chase, soared from 10th in points to fifth, one position behind Kurt Busch. Edwards moved from fifth to third and Keselowski took a hike from 11th place as a “wildcard” entry to sixth.

Seventh through 12th in points are, in order, Newman, Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kenseth, Jeff Gordon and .

The Geico 400 certainly made an impact on the Chase. For some drivers, it was bad and for others, very good.

For Stewart it was perfect.

But it must be noted, again, that the race was the first of 10 that will determine the champion.

There is a long way to go. And a lot can happen.

Menard’s Indy Victory Adds To Season’s Competitiveness

The 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season has established itself as one of the most unique in many years for a couple of reasons:

It has provided a decidedly unexpected high number of surprising, first-time winners. In so doing it has suggested that, perhaps, competition on the circuit has reached a level of equality it hasn’t had in years – or, as some might argue, ever.

When Paul Menard won the Brickyard 400 (the sports books took a beating), he not only won for the first time in the 167 races of his career, he also became the fourth inaugural victor of the season and the 14th different winner in 20 races.

This year’s first-time winners include Trevor Bayne in the Daytona 500, Regan Smith in the Southern 500, David Ragan in Daytona’s Coke Zero 400 at now Menard at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Have you noticed that these guys have not only won races, they have also been victorious in some of NASCAR’s biggest and most prestigious events?

Which, by the way, is something absolutely no one could have predicted. That adds to the season’s singularity and, to be honest, it’s made things entertaining for everyone. Most of us like surprises.

The record for most winners in a single season was tied at 19 in 2001, during which 36 races were run, the same amount for 2011.

Logic dictates that the odds are good the record will be broken given that there are 16 races yet to be run. The current season is not much past halfway over.

Unless the trend that has been established so far is disrupted we can anticipate more winners – and the odds are good none will be that much of a surprise.

After all, there are those who have won multiple times in their careers, some of whom have won championships, and yet haven’t been victorious this year.

They include Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Joey Logano, Juan Pablo Montoya, Jeff Burton, Jamie MacMurray and others. Would anyone be truly surprised if any, or all, of them had won by now?

The point is they still have plenty of time to do so and increase the number of different winners.

Even if this season’s doesn’t provide a record it has, for some observers, indicated NASCAR is presently enjoying something for which it always sought – equal competition; the ability for virtually any driver to win a race.

Today that appears to be more truth than hype. The numbers prove it.

While this is certainly not the only reason for this, it assuredly is a major one: The so-called new car, its technology and accompanying NASCAR legislation, have been established to the point where dominance by one team over all others is unlikely.

Several crew chiefs have expressed this opinion. They have said that it might have taken a while, but the majority of teams now understand the nuances of the car. NASCAR’s cessation of repeated rule changes has helped.

Given that the car is singular, with just minor differences among manufacturers’ models (front ends and engine packages come to mind), and the same sternly enforced rules apply across the board, crew chiefs say there’s only so much teams can do.

They can push the envelope as much as they dare but creativity is long gone. NASCAR’s punishments have assured that.

If a team can utilize creativity only to a certain point it often cannot gain a sizable advantage over another. That, many suggest, is what we have now.

Make no mistake. Equal competition does not mean teams are now equal per se. That’s not the case by any means.

There are still the haves and have-nots, separated by sponsorship money and the equipment and in-shop talent, among many other things, it brings.

But it does suggest that this season is more equally competitive than others passed.

Bayne won with a part-time team that relies on assistance from a major organization. Smith was victorious (and has done well for a good part of the season) with a one-car outfit that is based in Denver, Colo.

Were either considered likely candidates for victory? Hardly.

Ragan is indeed part of a NASCAR powerhouse organization but, let’s face it, he was considered the weak link in a chain of formidable, winning competitors.

It’s the same thing for Menard. Funny thing, but both drivers have won while some of their teammates have not.

Again, this is not to suggest the car, and all that comes with it, is the only reason for this. Give credit where it’s due. Ragan and Menard have proven they have the talent to make the most of what they have.

In years past many drivers never had such an opportunity. A handful of teams with major sponsorship – and sometimes a sizable disparity among car models – allowed them to dominate others.

This was particularly true during the 1970s, the first full decade of NASCAR’s modern era. The number of different winners over those 10 years never reached double digits.

Hard as it may be to believe there were only five different winners in 1975.

That’s because you could count the number of teams expected to win on one hand. Equality never approached existence.

That began to change in the ‘80s when new, ambitious owners with sponsorship entered NASCAR. It carried through the following decade. There were multiple seasons with anywhere from 11-14 different winners.

Today it has risen to a new level. That is, certainly for NASCAR, a good thing.


** I’ve heard it said over the years that the only reason Menard has established a NASCAR career is that he can always bring major sponsorship via his father John.

His dad, incidentally, has been an integral part of motorsports for decades and his rewards, at least those publicized, haven’t been many. He spent 35 years competing at Indy before his son, appropriately, brought him the laurels.

It is true he’s had the financial means to support his son – and gain exposure for the family business over the years – and what, pray tell, is wrong with that?

It’s been long established in motorsports that fathers who have been a part of it in some form nearly always nurture the sons who follow them. They have done so by whatever means available to them.

These fathers have had names like Petty, Allison, Earnhardt, Andretti, Keselowski, Menard, Ragan – and far too many others to mention here.

Their reward has been to see their progeny succeed.

If you saw John Menard’s reaction to his son’s victory, you know it is a great reward, indeed.


** Menard’s victory means that he’s presently in the No. 2 position to earn one of the two “wildcard” entries into the Chase.

The top 10 will make it along with two drivers who have won the most races and still rank between 11th and 20th in points after Richmond, six races from now.

Denny Hamlin, who fell a position to 11th after his 27th-place run at Indy, has a victory.

Menard is 14th in points and, of course, has a victory. Ragan, once the only victorious driver among the top 20, is now 16th in points, just seven behind Menard and 41 in arrears to Hamlin.

Meanwhile, Tony Stewart, who had his good moments at Indy, rose from a tie for 10th with Hamlin to ninth in points.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who also ran well at Indy for a time, finished 16th – his sixth consecutive finish out of the top 10 – and is now on the fence at 10th in points.

With time passing away some drivers clearly have work to do. Gotta admit it will be interesting to see how it all evolves.

The Points System Has Provided Intrigue, With More To Come

Maybe I’m wrong and you may disagree, but if nothing else, NASCAR’S new points system has, to date, made the season intriguing.

As I understand it, the modified system awards a winner 43 points. He gets three more points for winning and another for leading a lap, which means a minimum of 47 laps.

If the winner leads the most laps that means another bonus point. The total is now 48, the most any driver can earn in a single race.

The most points the second-place finisher can get is 44 points, 42 for second, one for leading and one for leading the most laps.

Putting bonus points aside – NASCAR wanted to maintain the race winner reward – the system is pretty basic. There’s only a one-point difference between each position, from the base of 43 for first place to just one for last place.

The unique change NASCAR made for this season, in addition to rewarding consistency of performance, was to allow the top 10 after 26 races to qualify for the chase. Spots 11 and 12 would go to the drivers who have compiled the most victories and rank among the top 20.

OK, that’s enough. I’ve dwelled long enough on something you already know.

But what I find interesting about the new points system is that it has kept things fairly undecided as we enter the final six races before the Chase.

While there are a few drivers who seem safe when it comes to the Chase, there are others whose status is very much uncertain.

And Carl Edwards, the points leader, by no means has a lock on the top spot. He’s just seven points ahead of five-time champion Jimmie Johnson.

Among the top 10 every driver except one has a victory. Kevin Harvick, fourth in points and eight behind Edwards, has three victories, as does Kyle Busch, who is fifth in points, 13 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth and Jeff Gordon have two wins each – and are ranked sixth and seventh in points, respectively.

I would think all four drivers are pretty much guaranteed spots in the Chase.

I’d say the same for Edwards, Johnson, Kurt Busch (third in points), Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin, who each have a victory and are among the top 10.

OK, here’s where the situation becomes a bit tense for some drivers.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ranks ninth in points largely because he’s been in a competitive swoon. He was once as high as third in the standings.

But he does not have a victory. Which means two things if he wants to make the Chase: He has to hang on to the top 10 over the next six races, or, at the very least, earn a victory, something he hasn’t done since 2008.

Tony Stewart faces a similar situation. He’s tied with Hamlin for 10th in points, but unlike Hamlin, he doesn’t have a victory.

So if the Chase started immediately, Hamlin is in and Stewart is out.

But it doesn’t start immediately so Stewart has a chance to secure his place. Most likely he would prefer to do it with a victory. He hasn’t had a winless season in a career that dates back to 1999.

Other notables, such as Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle, pretty much have to rely on winning to make the Chase.

Bowyer is 12th in points, Kahne 14th and Biffle 15th. They are 110 points or more behind the leader. Bowyer is 28 points out of 10th place. He can certainly make up the difference but the odds are quickly stacking against him.

It’s the same for Kahne and Biffle, who are each 47 points out of the hunt.

For these three guys, a victory would be the tonic. The last time Bowyer went winless happened in 2009. He won two races last year.

Kahne has had two consecutive winless seasons. Between 2003-10, Biffle had only one year without a victory, 2009.

I don’t think there’s much doubt any of them can win this year. The question is can they do it in time to help them make the Chase?

They are not alone. It’s going to take a win for several others who rank 11-20th in points to make NASCAR’s “playoff.”

They include A.J. Allmendinger, Juan Pablo Montoya, Joey Logano, Paul Menard and Mark Martin.

Fact is there’s only one driver out of the top 10 who is assured a position in the Chase – for the time being, anyway.

That’s David Ragan, who won at Daytona on July 2 to earn the first victory of his career. He’s presently 13th in points.

He’s 46 points out of 10th place. That’s not insurmountable, just as it is for Bowyer, Kahne and Biffle, and I’m sure that, like the others, gaining positions is what he’d like to do.

But he’s the only one with the luxury of a victory.

As it stands right now, the only other driver who has a shot at the Chase is Brad Keselowski. He has a victory but, in 23rd place, ranks out of the top 20.

He’s going to have to scrap his way in. He’s 25 points behind 20th-place Martin, again certainly not an insurmountable margin. He has six races to do it.

The next half-dozen races are worthy of our attention. For some drivers it’s obviously going to take victory to make all the difference.

Can they win? Certainly. The 2011 season has already produced 13 different winners, including three who won for the first time.

Since NASCAR’s modern era began in 1972, the all-time record for most winners in a single season is 19 and the record for most first-time winners was five twice, in 2001 and 2002.

We’re on a pace to have 25 winners this year, including six who won for this first time in their careers.

I don’t know if that will happen, but the point is this season’s variety of winners would indicate that anything could happen over the next six events – and thus alter the starting field for the Chase.

Earnhardt “Pissed Off” With Martin’s Driving

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was squeezed into the wall by Martin in the closing stages of the Michigan 400 NASCAR race yesterday. Earnhardt blew a tire and flattened the side of Earnhardt’s car. Denny Hamlin took his second win this year shuffling the points.

Current Situation Aside, Elliott’s Glory Remains Intact

Bill Elliott admits he’s not sure when, or if, he’ll race again. He said he’s just on the sidelines. He’s taking it one day at a time.

The situation seems decidedly inglorious for a driver who ranks as one of the greatest in NASCAR and who is one of the most popular competitors in any form of motorsports.

But, perhaps, we could have seen it coming. Elliott has been a part-time driver since 2004, his last full season with Ray Evernham.

The teams with which he’s raced have been, for the most part, second tier.

He did spend four seasons with Wood Brothers Racing, which has a glorious past. But the team has competed on a limited schedule due to a lack of funds – and thus has been largely uncompetitive and ignored. With Elliott, it had a past champion and, at the least, was assured of provisional starts.

Elliott’s association with the Woods came to a conclusion at the end of last season. Ironically, his replacement, Trevor Bayne, won the 2011 Daytona 500 and restored some glory to the Woods with his surprising and hugely popular victory.

Elliott, meanwhile, started the season with Phoenix Racing and was scheduled to run 17 races. But he was released from the team last month.

At Talladega Elliott used his provisional start to get the Whitney Motorsports car in the race and later turned the wheel over to J.J. Yeley.

One published report said that Elliott didn’t want to run the entire race and, before it started, made a deal with Yeley to finish up.

At the least, that’s a very curious situation.

To many, it’s also curious how Elliott could have let his career deteriorate to the point where he’s standing on the side of the road with his thumb out, hoping to hitch a ride.

All he’s done, it’s said, is tarnish his established image by hooking up with uncompetitive rides. He hasn’t done anything more than hang around into his 50s.

I don’t share those opinions.

I’ve known Elliott since he broke into NASCAR in 1976, when we dubbed him “Huck Finn.” I’ve had several conversations with him over the years. But I haven’t talked with him about his most recent competitive status, so I don’t know the reasons for it or why he has seemingly accepted it.

But I can take a guess.

I surmise that, perhaps, it all has something to do with Elliott’s 15-year-old son Chase, a racing prodigy.

Maybe Elliott wanted to race on a limited schedule in order to spend more time helping his son’s competitive development.

As I recall, Mark Martin did something similar a few years back when his son Matt became involved in racing.

Elliott’s options, when it came to high-quality teams, were limited. Most are not interested in anything part-time.

But with his past champion’s provisional, Elliott was assured a starting position in every race he ran – and that meant additional income, which certainly couldn’t hurt when it came to Chase’s fledgling career.

Chase, incidentally, has been signed to a developmental driver contract with Hendrick Motorsports. So perhaps his dad may now think there’s not much need to race at all.

But, as I said, I don’t know. I’m only guessing.

What I do know is that it matters little what has happened in recent years. The glow on Elliott’s career remains intact – and that’s certainly no guess.

It won’t be forgotten that he won 44 races, including 11 superspeedway events in 1985, the same year he won the inaugural Winston Million bonus.

He won the Daytona 500 two times. He won the Brickyard 400 in 2002. He holds Talladega’s qualifying record of 212.809 mph, the fastest lap in NASCAR history. He was the 1988 Winston Cup champion.

And he was voted NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver 16 times.

Elliott has long since established his standing in NASCAR. What he’s done over the last few years and how it’s been perceived won’t change that now or ever.

Frankly, knowing Elliott, I don’t believe he’s given any of this a second thought – if he thought about it at all.


Cope Admits 500 Victory Gives Him Some Clout

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Because NASCAR dramatically changed eligibility requirements for the Budweiser Shootout, old-line driver Derrike Cope, and some others, were afforded what Cope called “a golden opportunity.”

The special event used to be reserved only for pole winners from the previous season. But in 2011, NASCAR expanded the eligibility requirements. One of them declared that past Daytona 500 winners could compete in the Shootout.

Cope is one of them. He raced in the Shootout in Larry Gunselman’s Toyota and finished 14th of the 14 cars remaining in the race.

Cope was eligible for the Shootout because he was the winner of the 1990 Daytona 500 in one of the most improbable finishes in the race’s history.

Dale Earnhardt, at that time winless in the 500 although he had earned victories in every other race at Daytona International Speedway, was leading the last lap in Richard Childress’ Chevrolet.

Everyone believed he was at last destined for victory.
Cope, driving for the fledgling Bob Whitcomb Racing team, also in a Chevrolet, ran second. It was going to be a good day for him.
It got better.

As the two cars sped down the backstretch, Earnhardt suddenly slowed and drifted low on the track – allowing Cope to pass. Something was wrong.

Cope, as stunned as everyone in attendance, had only to keep all four wheels on the track to secure the victory.
Earnhardt suffered a cut tire after he ran over a piece of bell housing. Cruel fate had denied him again.

Dutifully, the media reported Cope’s victory. But not one of them thought it was anything less than a fluke – even though Cope, in second place, had run very well.

Earnhardt probably received more attention than Cope simply because the man known as “The Intimidator” had failed to win the Daytona 500 – again.

Cope was in only his third full year of Sprint Cup competition when he won the 500. Later in the year he won at Dover, which was not a fluke.

Those are the only two victories of Cope’s career.
He hasn’t raced full-time, or something close to it, on the Cup circuit since 1998.

But he still races now and then. And, except for a three-year period from 2006-2008 during which he didn’t compete, he’s always shown up for the Daytona 500.

However, the last time he actually drove in the race was in 2004. It’s been rough going since. He failed to qualify three times, in 2005, 2009 and last season.
He’ll try again this year, again in Gunselman’s Toyota.

The fact that he’s continued to simply find rides, much less race, amazes some. They reason he’s gotten a lot of mileage out of his Daytona 500 victory.

Cope heartily agrees. He believes that any driver with a 500 victory has some power – bargaining and otherwise – that can produce benefits.

“Well, it got me to this dance (the Shootout) didn’t it?” Cope said. “You bring a lot to the table when you put ‘Daytona 500 winner’ next to your name.

“It indicates competitiveness and the ability to perform at racing’s highest level. So when you are in a boardroom, applying for some money, it’s the kind of thing that can put you right back at Daytona, so that’s a good thing.

“And you can keep racing here and there.”

Over the years Cope has established a successful shock absorber shop and has been a television commentator. He’s also run some Nationwide Series races.

Starting at Daytona, he’s scheduled to do so again in Jay Robinson’s cars.
So he keeps on racing.

Since Cope is now 52 years old, that he keeps on truckin’ begs the question, why?

“I physically love to drive a race car,” Cope said. “At places like Daytona, Talladega, Michigan, Atlanta and Charlotte – the fast places – the speed is just the draw for me.

“You get challenges like the one here at Daytona with the new pavement. That’s just another aspect you want to experience. You want to absorb everything you can while you can.”

So when does Cope cease the absorption process? It’s not likely to be soon.

“Mark Martin and I talked last night,” Cope said. “And we agreed we aren’t going to let anyone else dictate to us when we should retire.
“We are going to keep doing this as long as we want to keep doing it. We are going to absorb it for as long as we can.

“And, when it comes time to make that conscious decision, then that’s when we’ll do it.”
Looks like Cope is going to put a few more miles on that 1990 Daytona 500 victory.

Is 2011 The Year Of Gordon’s Redemption?

By this time many of us might have thought Jeff Gordon would have already won perhaps 100 races and matched Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt with seven career Sprint Cup championships.

After all, he averaged over eight wins per season during the first five years of his career and, at one time, was so singular in his performances on the track that many thought he might well eclipse anything NASCAR has ever known.

Think of it. From 1994, just one season after he first competed on the full schedule with Hendrick Motorsports, until 1998, Gordon won a remarkable 42 races and three championships. In the year he did not win a title, 1996, he finished second to Hendrick teammate Terry Labonte.

He was so astonishing on the tracks, and at such a tender young age, he earned the nickname “Wonder Boy,” given to him by the late Dale Earnhardt. Don’t think Gordon was overly fond of it.

I remember Gordon’s unheralded debut in Atlanta in the fall of 1992. It was the race in which Petty made his last career start and Alan Kulwicki ultimately won the championship by 10 points over Bill Elliott, the closest margin in NASCAR history. Gordon finished 31st.

I also remember the first time I saw Gordon away from the track. It was at a cocktail party in downtown Charlotte thrown by Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Tom Higgins, then with the Charlotte Observer, and I were standing at one of the many bars. A baby-faced Gordon, with his wispy moustache, walked in somewhat wide-eyed.

He stepped up to the bar and ordered a Coke – as you might expect. When served he asked, “How much?”

Higgins and I knew we had just seen someone who had never been invited to a cocktail party.

“There’s no charge,” we said.
“Good evening, Mr. Waid and Mr. Higgins,” Gordon said.
“Son, Mr. Higgins is my father,” Higgins said. “Call me Tom. This is Steve.”

At that time, which was well before Gordon made his victory and championship runs, neither of us had any idea of what he would achieve – or did anyone else, for that matter.

As Gordon accomplished what he did during the first half-dozen years of his career some fans grew to resent him.

They felt he was a driver simply handed everything needed to succeed. He hooked up with one of NASCAR’s best teams, armed with top equipment and personnel. Anyone with a modicum of talent, they said, could win in such a situation. He was a driver who had a silver spoon shoved into his mouth. He never paid his dues.

This is balderdash, of course.

Gordon’s talents were honed from the time he was barely able to walk. With the guidance of his family he raced open-wheel and Sprint Cars all across the country – and very successfully.

It was only after team owner Rick Hendrick, who has always had an eye for talent, saw him drive the wheels off a Nationwide Series car that Gordon got his break to enter the top echelon of NASCAR.

Let’s move forward in time. Gordon is now 38 years old. He hasn’t been called “Wonder Boy” in years. He’s an established NASCAR star. He won his fourth, and to date last, title in 2001.

But as quickly as his career soared early it has since fallen back to earth.

Other than in 2007, when he won six races and finished second in the Chase, his career has been far less productive than it once was. He didn’t make the Chase in 2005. His last victory came at Texas in the spring of 2009, which means he’s won just once since 2008.

Mired in a victory drought, Gordon undoubtedly views the 2011 season as one of redemption. He’ll compete with a new crew chief, Alan Gustafson, who came aboard after an off-season Hendrick shuffle. Gustafson was formerly Mark Martin’s pit boss.
Gordon hopes to find chemistry with Gustafson but nothing is guaranteed.

Gordon also feels there is nothing seriously wrong with his team. It doesn’t need sweeping change. He thinks with some small alterations; some tweaking, it will get better. And he knows it needs to be. The competition is stronger than ever.

Gordon maintains age has not diminished his skills nor has fatherhood dulled his competitiveness. He feels he still wants to win as strongly as he did in his youth.

But, as he said during the Sprint Cup Media Tour, he can’t make things better by himself – nor can his crew chief.

“We have to capitalize on opportunities to get wins, to create chemistry and confidence and keep that going all year long,” Gordon said. “That’s going to take teamwork.”

There was a time when we’d never hear those words from Gordon. But things change.
And every top driver has gone through a slump. The great ones break out of it.
It’s very likely Gordon looks at 2011 as his chance to do just that.

Martin Plans To Press On, But There’s A Job To Do

I’m guessing Mark Martin knows when to quit – apparently it’s just not going to be any time soon.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup driver, who celebrated his 52nd birthday on Jan. 9, is in his last year with Hendrick Motorsports. He will be replaced in 2012 by Kasey Kahne.

When that happens Martin will have completed his 25th season as a NASCAR driver. Seems a good time to move on to something else.

Right now, however, Martin isn’t going to do that. He said during the Sprint Media Tour presented by Charlotte Motor Speedway that he intends to continue to race.

“I am absolutely, without a doubt, going to be driving race cars next year,” he said. “I’m just not going to be in any hurry to worry about that.”

Martin announced five years ago that he was ready to retire. He would bring to an end a 19-year tenure with Jack Roush, which produced, by far, Martin’s greatest successes.

With Roush, Martin won 35 Cup races and finished second in the final point standings four times.

But Martin changed his mind about retirement. Instead, in 2007 he accepted a ride for a limited schedule with owner Bobby Ginn. Dale Earnhardt Inc. absorbed the Ginn operation later in the year and Martin stayed on to compete in 24 races in 2008.

It surprised some that Martin agreed to race full-time for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009. As far as Martin’s career goes, it was a very good move.

He had one of his best seasons with five wins and another second-place finish in points. It was abundantly clear that was a lot of life left in the old boy.

Many felt Martin would be a title contender in 2010 and could, at long last, win his first career championship.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Martin failed to win a race, finished among the top 10 only 11 times and wound up 13th in points – out of the Chase.

This bit of adversity is nothing compared to what Martin has overcome in his past.

His first full-time foray into NASCAR in 1982 went bust and he was forced to return to short-track racing in the Midwest, where he had been vastly successful.

He didn’t return to NASCAR until 1988, when Roush formed his team and gave Martin his long-awaited chance – provided he no longer took another drink.

Obviously, Martin made the very most of his second opportunity.
I’ve always felt drivers retire for several reasons but the most common appear to be:
Racing is no longer fun, it’s a grind.
Because he says he’s going to return in 2012, Martin obviously does not consider racing a grind.
A driver no longer feels he’s able to perform at the level he once did.

Despite his 2010 season, which was an off-year for him, Martin clearly feels he’s able to perform at a high level and wants to raise that in 2011. No one is going to argue with that.

A driver faces the fact opportunities have dried up for him.

They certainly haven’t for Martin over the years and, despite the fact this is his last year with Hendrick, do you really believe an opportunity won’t arise for Martin in 2012?

A driver is no longer physically able to perform.

Unfortunately, this has been the situation for several drivers over the years. Martin, however, has thus far avoided any serious malady, both on and off the track. Hopefully, that will continue.

And he’s one of the most physically-fit individuals in the garage area, having long since substituted body building for booze.

Martin has evolved into one of NASCAR’s greatest drivers. In racing his age does not matter – obviously he doesn’t think so – and if he’s got the right equipment and personnel he can compete with the youngest of them.

When it comes to sorting out his future, Martin’s got it right. He’ll deal with that much later in the season.
Right now he’s got a job to do – again.

Ruling Could Return Nationwide Series To Its Old Self

Although it has neither confirmed nor denied it, NASCAR’s latest ruling, when announced, is not intended to bring something new; rather, it is to return to the old.

It is anticipated, and already reported by some competitors, that NASCAR will require before the season starts, drivers must claim the circuit – be it Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Camping World Trucks – for which they desire to run for a championship. This intended to achieve a few goals.

Among them is one that appears obvious. It is to end Cup driver dominance of the Nationwide Series, and in so doing, perhaps re-establish a true identity for that circuit.

If the legislation is enacted, it would seem Cup driver rule over the Nationwide Series is finished, at least when it comes to championships. And for many of the series’ fans, that’s a good thing. They have long complained about the omnipotence of the competitors once known as “Buschwhackers.”

Cup drivers can compete in as many Nationwide races as they wish – Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski plan to run the full schedule – they just can’t win a championship unless they choose to run for it. Do you really think any would do so?
That means the title will be won by a Nationwide regular.
But, given they can enter as many Nationwide races as they wish, Cup drivers may well garner the majority of victories. It’s
possible – but not likely – that the Nationwide champion could be winless in 2011. He may not even have the highest number of points.

That is not going to sit well with everyone. There will be controversy. Many have already expressed their doubts.
Nevertheless, the champ will be a driver on a team dedicated to the Nationwide Series. That’s how it used to be and that’s the way – the old way – NASCAR wants it.

The series has always been considered a “feeder” circuit, one that breeds future Cup drivers while standing on its own. It has most often been compared to Triple-A baseball.

It evolved from the Late Model Sportsman circuit, the precursor to the Busch Series and later the Nationwide Series.
In the past, for the most part, the circuit did exactly what it was supposed to do – it served as a training ground for future Cup stars, among them Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick, Greg Biffle and Brian Vickers, all champions by the way.

However, in the past there were several drivers who made their careers in today’s Nationwide Series and really never made any serious forays into Cup competition. Many of them simply were not interested for various reasons.

Drivers like Jack Ingram, Sam Ard, Larry Pearson, Tommy Houston, Tommy Ellis, Chuck Bown, L.D. Ottinger and several others became stars, fan favorites and champions in their own right.

Sure, they raced against Cup drivers who made regular forays into their series. The intruders won a lot of races – Mark Martin holds the record with 48 – but they never fretted losing a championship to any of them.

That’s because Cup drivers never followed the full schedule and thus didn’t go after a title.
But, as you know, that has changed over the years.
I think some Cup teams – and drivers who formed their own Nationwide organizations – realized that there was money to be made. Also, a little more track time under racing conditions was appealing. And a championship would be an excellent return on a sponsor’s investment, not to mention a boost to a career and reputation.

Since a title is not possible now it might be more difficult to attract a sponsor.
It might be easier for Nationwide regulars to acquire financial backing as sponsors realize they are going to be the only championship contenders.

Although Cup drivers will still compete in Nationwide races the chances are good they won’t do so in as many as they once did. This may mean more young, aspiring drivers could get opportunities – Cup drivers aren’t hogging the seats.

Where the Cup teams once dominated the under funded Nationwide groups, now, perhaps, they may be forced to use a junior series regular – or another promising competitor – which also affords more opportunity.

A powerful Cup organization might well run a full Nationwide schedule with a developmental driver. It’s been done before and might be more prevalent this year. That’s good for the circuit.

All said, the Nationwide Series is supposed to be a feeder circuit that stands on its own and produces its own stars. In recent years it has gotten away from that.

But now that its champion will be one who is a regular, not an intruder – and the tour will have its own “pony” cars – it has a real chance to return to what it was. It can develop its own identity.

Given that, NASCAR has done something new to return to something old.
You know, it seems it’s done a lot of that recently.

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