Mark Martin’s Improbable Career Takes New Turn

Mark Martin’s long career has taken a new turn as he will be the injured Tony Stewart’s replacement in 12 of the final 13 races of the season.

I remember when Mark Martin vanished from NASCAR.

It was at the end of the 1983 season. In the previous two years, the Arkansas native tried to compete in what was then the Winston Cup circuit on his own.

Needless to say, he ran out of money. He started the ’83 campaign with owner J.D. Stacy, got fired, and then drove in a handful of events with Larry McClure, D.K. Ulrich and Emanuel Zervakis.

And then he disappeared.

How Martin came back to NASCAR, and ultimately became very successful, is an oft-told tale. In 1988 Jack Roush gave him a shot at full-time competition and suffice it to say the excelled.

Over 19 years Martin won 35 races with Roush and established a reputation as one of NASCAR’s best drivers – ever.

But at the start of the 2006 season Martin announced his retirement – well, he said he was going on a “farewell tour.”

Made sense. The guy was 47 years old and spent a lot of time eagerly grooming son Matt for a racing career.

Some “farewell.” Martin didn’t stop racing – and he hasn’t to this day.

Since 2007 he’s raced for four different teams. Most of his efforts have been on a limited-schedule basis, but not all.

He ran full seasons with Hendrick Motorsports from 2009-2011 and finished second in the points standings in ’09 with five victories.

It was the fifth time in his career that he finished as the runnerup in the championship.

Martin will spend the rest of the season behind Stewart’s familiar No. 14 Chevrolet. Brian Vickers will replace Martin at Michael Waltrip Racing.

Now Martin is off on a new adventure, one that will keep him on the tracks for the remainder of the year.

He signed with Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012 and competed in 24 races. All was to be the same in 2013 until it was announced that Martin would be the interim driver of the Stewart Haas Racing Chevrolet.

He will substitute for Tony Stewart, who broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a Sprint Car race and will miss the remainder of the season.

Martin will drive in 12 of the season’s remaining 13 races, starting this weekend at Bristol. Austin Dillon will compete at Talladega in October.

Martin vacates his part-time deal with MWR – with the team’s blessing – and will be replaced by Brian Vickers, who was already scheduled to take over for Martin in 2014.

Frankly SHR could not have made a better choice.

With Martin, it will not face a competitive challenge.

Martin brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the team. He doesn’t have to learn a darn thing.

Martin will not have a transition period of any size. He’s been with so many teams and so many new people over the years that it has become second nature to him.

Martin has established a reputation as a “no-nonsense” driver whose emotions do not overrule his thinking. He is well known for bringing a car home in one piece – and often in a high finishing position.

Stewart said Martin was his first choice to be his replacement, because, among other things, he knew it would not be a challenge for Martin. He would adapt quickly.

All of this is yet another adventure for Martin, a guy we thought would have been on the sidelines – willingly – for the past six years.

He admits he’s been surprised at the amount of times he’s been called upon to help and the number of opportunities he’s been given.

To be honest, he could have ignored them.

But I think a couple of things made a difference. First, Martin’s son Matt found new interests other than racing. That meant Martin lost the opportunity many fathers crave – to teach their sons the family profession.

And look at the teams that wanted Martin’s services – Dale Earnhardt Inc., Hendrick, MWR and now SHR.

When the opportunity arises to drive for one of NASCAR’s top teams, much less four, that is something I think is so very hard for a competitor to ignore.

My opinion is that if none of those quality teams came calling over the last several seasons, Martin would indeed be in a rocking chair on his front porch.

“I never really dreamed of what’s happened from 2007 on,” the 54-year-old Martin said. “It’s been a great experience to have the chance to work with so many great people and teams and to learn from them.

“And I’ve made so many good friends throughout the time.”

And now, for Martin, it’s off to a new experience, one that will begin shortly.

“My goal with SHR is to get good, solid performances,” Martin said. “But more than that I want to bring something to the organization in stability and turn the car back over to Tony in a stronger situation than it was when he got injured.”

I don’t think anyone disagrees that Martin is the type of driver who can do just that. Certainly Stewart, and no one else at SHR, would question it.

In life, fate takes some strange twists and turns.

Just think of it.

In 1983 most people in NASCAR thought they would never again see the young driver from Batesville, Ark.

Since then, who could have imagined …?

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