Mark Martin takes a break during NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series testing at Daytona International Speedway.
Mark Martin postponed his full-time gig in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series for a year. But he hasn’t postponed his reputation as the circuit’s best pickup artist.
Martin, driving trucks part-time in 2006 while closing out his Nextel Cup career, won the first two NCTS races of the 2006 season.
Although he won’t compete in enough races to claim the championship this year, he has already set himself as the man to beat in 2007.
In the Racetickets.com 200 February at California Speedway, Martin basically repeated his winning performance from the season-opener at Daytona.
In a two-lap overtime finish, he held off Todd Bodine following a crash by Mike Wallace on lap 99.
When the caution came out, it extended the event by two laps; the same scenario happened at Daytona. And just like the season opener, championship contenders Bodine and Ted Musgrave, the defending champ, had to settle for the place and show spots.
The Toyotas of Bodine and Musgrave were lined up behind Martin’s Ford on lap 105, but they had nothing for the Roush Racing veteran.
“Man, I’m having a blast,” Martin says. “I’m back one more year (in Cup) for the fans and Jack Roush, but it’s a privilege to drive this F-150. It’s just got great horsepower. The handling is fantastic, and all the guys in the crew are fantastic.
“I love racing with Todd and Ted and Mike Skinner and all those guys; they’re really good drivers. We had our hands full on the last restart.”
Musgrave and Bodine had hoped to run Martin down at Daytona, but their combined efforts went for naught. The futility was repeated in the dash to the California checker.
“Todd learned (at Daytona) that if we had a green-white-checker that he was going to be sitting pretty good,” Martin says. “I knew that he knew and he knew that I knew, and it was time to see what we could all do. We just had enough to keep it out there. Our truck would get better the longer we were out there.”
Martin will compete in just seven NCTS events this year, but had it not been for a shakeup in the Roush Racing stable, he’d be racing for a title.
When Kurt Busch was released from his contract to join Penske Racing, Roush found himself a man down in the Nextel Cup garage.
“The driver situation in the garage was horrible for replacements,” Martin explains. “There’s no one who’s ready to step into a top car, and I wasn’t going to leave a guy like Jack Roush hanging. I love my team and Jack too much to leave them with a total empty hole for 2006.”
Still, the decision to extend his Cup career for 36 more races was not an easy one.
“We had plans,” Martin says. “I was excited about them. My family was excited about them. But we made the decision to not leave these guys in a jam and give them time to come up with a better situation than what they were faced with in 2006.”
So while Martin is fully committed to the Nextel Cup Series, he makes no bones about enjoying getting behind the wheel of his pickup more.
“I think truck racing is the best racing in NASCAR, I really do,” he says. “This is what I want to do, and I’m looking forward to doing it full-time in 2007.”
When Martin isn’t in the Scott’s Ford F-150 this year, it’ll be David Ragan manning the wheel.
“David is going to take over for me starting in Martinsville for a while,” Martin says. “David is a young rookie who’s incredible. I think he can get some wins in this thing, too. I really look forward to watching David come along. He’s a great driver.”
In winning, Martin became the first driver in California Speedway history to win in all three of NASCAR’s national touring divisions there. He has also won a pair of International Race of Champions events at Fontana as well.
But the truck victory appears to be the most special for the Batesville, Ark. native.
“I’ve always loved watching the truck races and to be in them is a blast,” Martin says. “The trucks don’t handle quite as good as the cars. It makes the drivers have to work for it a little bit more, and that’s a good thing. But I’m driving the truck seven races this year because I know I have a lot to learn, and I want to try to learn as much as I can with the team. We need to step up the program, and I’m also trying to help out some of our younger drivers.
“I’ve got a lot on my plate, but my heart is in the Truck Series. I’m headed that way.”
And while Roush will miss his Cup point man next year, he knows there are bright days ahead in the NCTS.
“Mark Martin is the man,” Roush says. “He’s been my partner in this whole thing, building this Roush Racing team the past 19 years. When you have this good of a start for our program this year, and based on what that means will follow in the truck program next year, it’s just great.”
Still, the 2006 Nextel Cup campaign is Job One for Martin. But instead of fretting over a championship, he is as relaxed as he has ever been behind the wheel of a stock car.
“As far as I’m concerned, 2005 was my last chance at a championship,” says Martin. “If you don’t make the (Chase for the Championship), you can’t win it and as of right now I don’t expect to make the Chase this year because I know how hard it is.
“Obviously we’ll do everything we can, but 2006 doesn’t exist. It just doesn’t, and for me I’ll deal with it when it comes.”
Prior to the start of the 2005 season it appeared the timing of Martin’s departure was appropriate. With Kurt Busch winning the 2004 crown and drivers such as Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman adding to the legacy of the Roush Camp, the old guard would give way to the new.
But Roush wanted Martin back for one last hurrah, and he agreed – especially in light of Busch’s defection to Penske Racing in 2006 and Jamie McMurray’s planned exodus there as well.
Things didn’t quite work out that way.
“Last year lived up to my expectations in every way,” Martin says, “It was the best year of my life, starting with the support I’ve had from (son) Matt and (wife) Arlene. Even though it was in small quantities and small doses, it’s been the best quality of life we’ve ever had.
“It was more than anybody could ever ask for.”
Martin got some extra love from his fan base when it was thought 2005 would be his final season on the Cup circuit. When he hinted there would be one more year, the response was even more positive.
“The most fun part of this year has been Ford Fan Days at Batesville,” Martin says. “Instead of going in and signing autographs for two hours and heading out, I was able to be there for two days with the fans. I was able to spend real quality time with them looking at their old photographs and taking pictures.
“That’s not something we can do under normal circumstances. It’s been good to talk about old times and great times.”
As for a championship in his last season, Martin insists that would simply be icing on the cake.
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