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Keeping Pace

Sat., April 25, 2009, 8:03 a.m.

My Favorite Martin

Mark Martin celebrates in Victory Lane for the first time in 97 starts. His last win was at Kansas Speedway in October 2005. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR)  (Jerry Markland / The Spokesman-Review)
Mark Martin celebrates in Victory Lane for the first time in 97 starts. His last win was at Kansas Speedway in October 2005. (Photo Credit: Jerry Markland/Getty Images for NASCAR) (Jerry Markland / The Spokesman-Review)

Guest columnist Cathy Elliott gives some insight on NASCAR fan favorite, Mark Martin.

Courtesy: NASCAR, Cathy Elliott

Do me a favor and conduct a little sociology experiment sometime. Ask a few random people what they dislike most in the world. Answers will probably range anywhere from war to spiders to liars. If you ask me, you can add oatmeal to the list.

But if you take a stroll through the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series garage and ask the drivers the same question, nine times out of 10 you'll get the same answer -- losing. To them, losing is like the sound of fingernails on a blackboard, a trip to the dentist and a Barry Manilow concert, all rolled into one big fat ball of misery.

So it came as somewhat of a surprise to see so many happy-looking faces after the race at Phoenix on April 18, because 42 out of 43 of them were the faces of the losers.

In the Sprint Cup Series racing world, there are different levels of aspiration in relation to other drivers. Some drivers you want to be around; other drivers, you want to be like. Then comes the scant handful of drivers you would actually like to be.

Mark Martin fits into all three categories.

Martin made his Cup Series debut in 1981. For those of you who like to take the "that doesn't seem like all that long ago" attitude -- and I am one of you -- that was 28 years in the rearview mirror. Current stars of NASCAR's youth movement, including Brian Vickers, Joey Logano, David Ragan, Scott Speed and Kyle Busch, weren't even born yet. Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart were 10 years old. Jimmie Johnson was a first-grader.

Martin didn't come out of the gate too badly. In only five starts, he managed a third place finish at Martinsville and won two poles.

The intervening years have gone OK, too. Martin’s 36 Cup Series victories place him 18th on the all-time win list, just one spot behind Bobby Isaac. He is a four-time series runner-up, with second place finishes in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002. Over in the Nationwide Series, he sits at the top of the all-time win list, with 48 victories.

If experience is the best teacher, then nearly three decades of racing and 84 trips to NASCAR Victory Lanes must have certainly qualified Mark Martin for his doctoral degree by now.

And in keeping with his reputation as a good guy, a good driver and a good sport, he has passed that accumulated knowledge on to others. You can’t swing a cat in a NASCAR garage without hitting someone who will be happy to share a story about some tidbit of information they have learned from Martin. He knows things. He’s a guy drivers want to be around.

High on the “Things You’ll Never Hear at a Racetrack” list is the phrase, “I just can’t stand that Mark Martin. What a creep.” Martin has won a lot of races over the years, and has earned a pile of respect in the process.

In an arena were competitors can, and sometimes do, take their frustrations with one another out with the help of 3,400 pound stock cars, Martin has sort of become the Mr. Clean of NASCAR. Incidents and accidents are inevitable, but when “racing clean” is an option, he takes it.

“Mark has made a career out of racing you fairly,” Martin’s former Roush teammate Jeff Burton said. “But of course, if you don’t do the same for him, he remembers, so he won’t be doing you any favors if the opportunity comes up.”

In short Martin is a gentleman racer, willing to give good advice to his peers when he’s not too busy dusting his very crowded trophy case. In a sport where tension runs high and tempers do flare, he has somehow managed to make more friends than enemies.

Many drivers want to be like that.

Mark Martin doesn’t back away from difficult decisions, and isn’t afraid to take a risk. Imagine taking part-time possession of the wheel of a formerly successful No. 8 car when its former driver, who also happens to be NASCAR’s most popular racer, vacated the seat under, shall we say, somewhat contentious circumstances. Mark Martin did that.

Imagine having the courage and conviction to believe that no matter what the history books seem to indicate, drivers of a certain age can’t really compete with the younger, fresher talents on the track. Mark Martin has that.

Imagine becoming only the fourth driver in history over the age of 50 to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race. Mark Martin did that, just last week. He’ll probably do it again, too.

Now let’s really venture out onto the farthest-fetched of limbs. Imagine that you are so popular and well respected that you can beat Dale Earnhardt, Jr.,  and his fans don’t even get mad. That you can beat the other 41 guys, too, and instead of sulking in the garage area, a crowd of them comes to a Victory Lane that isn’t theirs to shake your hand and congratulate you. Imagine one very happy race winner, and 42 satisfied losers.

Unimaginable? Not any more. Why?

Because Mark Martin did that.

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Keeping Pace

Motorsports correspondent Doug Pace keeps up with motorsports news and notes from around the region.