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 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.