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All Martin Asks for is a Miracle

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 27 2009
(Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

(Photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

By Larry Woody | Senior Writer

Like so many middle-age-crazy ideas – buying that sports car convertible, getting matching tattoos with Darlene down at the Waffle House, returning Bernie Madoff’s phone call – it seemed like a good idea at the time.

That’s what 50-year-old Mark Martin would tell you.

He decided to end a perfectly good semi-retirement and return to racing full-time this season.

Yep, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Upon how many tombstones is that chiseled?

Now, after just five races, Martin is buried 31st in the standings and his chance of making NASCAR’s championship lineup has disappeared faster than your stockbroker’s whereabouts.

“This kind of luck can’t continue,” moaned Martin after a wipeout in the race at Atlanta. “It just can’t.”

Hummm. Isn’t that what Brett Favre said after his umpteenth interception?

We all remember Brett Favre don’t we? Yeah, but which Brett Favre? The swaggering, rocket-armed Pride of the Packers? Or the erratic old codger who spent last season stumbling around disguised as a New York Jet until finally– mercifully – he took the hint and caught a bus home to Mississippi.

Let’s hope Mark Martin hasn’t set himself up for a similar fall.

Darrell Waltrip once told me that hanging on too long was the biggest mistake of his career. After winning 81 races and three championships and securing his niche among the sport’s all-time greats, Waltrip wobbled through a final miserable decade, an old lion wheezing to keep up with a new generation.

“I regret having done it,” Waltrip confessed afterward. “I should have quit when I was on top. I hung around too long, and there were thousands and thousands of new fans who never saw me race in my prime. The Darrell Waltrip they saw was just some old dude tagging along back at the end of the field. I don’t want to be remembered like that.”

Ditto for Richard Petty. Arguably the greatest driver in the history of the sport – certainly the most celebrated – The King tried to keep dancing long after the music stopped.

Watching Petty’s final races was painful for his multitude of friends and fans. It was like seeing Secretariat ending his days hitched to a farm plow.

I recall Petty’s rueful reflection after he finally hung it up: “When you’re winnin’ you don’t want to quit ‘cause you’re having so much fun. And when you start losin’ you don’t want to quit while you’re on the bottom. So you never quit.”

Martin thought (don’t they all?) that he would fare better. He deserves it. He’s raced his heart out for three decades and won just about everything the sport has to offer. Except a championship. The Big Prize has slipped through his fingers four times, including a crushing second-place finish to Dale Earnhardt after a controversial NASCAR points penalty. They all left scars but that one remains raw and throbbing.

Martin and I collaborated on a book a few years ago – Mark Martin, Mark of Excellence – in which he is wrenchingly candid about the pains and disappointments life has thrown his way. I got the feeling that he gradually enveloped himself in a protective cocoon and would never expose himself to further harms and hurts.

I was wrong. He walked away but he couldn’t stay away. And now he finds himself once again caught in the grinding gears of an excruciating points struggle. The ancient Greeks would say he’s being punished for breaking his promise of “Never again.”

Martin is haunted by the missing championship.

He believed that this season, Rick Hendrick’s powerful Chevys and team backing could give him one last title shot. The temptation was too strong to resist.

And so, like a backsliding gambler returning to the table to try to win back what he’s lost – and then he’s done for keeps, honest – he told ‘em to deal him in.

One last shot, against all odds.

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Larry Woody is a sports writer in Nashville who has covered racing for 40 years.

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Friday, March 27 2009
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