Racing Beat: Full-time mark

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I am so not ready to quit racing.”
– Mark Martin

Many racing aficionados agree that Mark Martin is probably the greatest NASCAR driver to never win a Cup championship. And when the diminutive pilot from Batesville, Ark., decided he was going to become a big league part-timer to spend more time racing pickups, it appeared his “close, but not quite” legacy was secure.

But maybe not.

Martin announced July 5 at Daytona International Speedway that he will leave Dale Earnhardt Inc. at the end of the 2008 season and move over to Hendrick Motorsports, where he’ll take over for Casey Mears in the No. 5 Chevrolet and fit in just fine with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Martin will compete in all 36 Cup events in 2009, thus becoming eligible to win the elusive series championship.

It was a surprise to many. It was obvious as his semi-retirement drew closer that he was tired of the grind, and there are some tracks (such as Talladega Superspeedway) he absolutely despises.

But he still has his favorites, too.

He names Lowe’s Motor Speedway (in Charlotte) as the ultimate. “But I like Dover, too,” he says. “Dover is so good. In my opinion, concrete ruins racetracks, and Dover is so good that even concrete didn’t ruin it. It may not be quite what it was when it was asphalt, but it’s still my second favorite place to race. Lowe’s is the first. And the only time that Lowe’s wasn’t the first was when it was freshly repaved.

“It’s still a little difficult. It’s still not at its very best. But it is getting there. It’s much better than it was when the pavement was fresh and redone. There are a lot of great racetracks, a lot of fun racetracks to run on, but those are the top two in my book.”

In an interview earlier this year, Martin gave a hint that a full-time situation wasn’t out of the question.

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “And I am so not ready to quit racing. In 2005, if I was faced with all or nothing, it was certainly nothing. But we have managed to figure out a way to do this. And I’m in the best physical condition I’ve ever been in my life, bar none, without question. I’m in the best mental state that I’ve been in since I was a kid, because I’m so happy.”

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Yet he has said time and again that the Craftsman Truck Series is more akin to what Cup competition used to be like, and that’s where he wanted to put his energy.

But maybe he believes with Hendrick equipment and a team with limitless money he could legitimately contend for a crown.

By leaving DEI, Martin hands the keys completely to Aric Almirola, whom he has been teaching for the past two years while they shared the No. 8 Chevy. DEI vice president of motorsports operations John Story won’t speculate on Martin’s departure but does say Almirola will have a car all to himself in 2009.

“Aric is ready for a full-time ride,” Story says.

Through the Years: Mark Martin’s Points Rankings

After a rocky Cup debut in 1981, Mark Martin, acknowledged by many as the best driver in the business to never win a Cup points championship, finished 2nd in the standings four times, with just as many 3rd-place finishes and three 4th-place finishes.

2007 – 26th
2006 – 9th
2005 – 4th
2004 – 4th
2003 – 17th
2002 – 2nd
2001 – 12th
2000 – 8th
1999 – 3rd
1998 – 2nd
1997 – 3rd
1996 – 5th
1995 – 4th
1994 – 2nd
1993 – 3rd
1992 – 6th.
1991 – 6th
1990 – 2nd
1989 – 3rd
1988 – 15th
1987 – 101st
1986 – 48th
1983 – 30th
1982 – 14th
1981 – 42nd

Remembering IROC
The International Race of Champions comes to an end

As another racing season winds down, one of motorsports’ premier events passes with little notice. The International Race of Champions is no more, and no revival is on the horizon. In March, the series held a public auction to liquidate cars, tools, equipment and memorabilia, citing a lack of sponsorship and interest from manufacturers as the reasons for its demise. The 2007 season was “postponed,” and, in February, IROC officials announced it was going out of business.

For fans who liked to see drivers from all disciplines compete, the end of IROC leaves a void. It was the only time they ever got the true superstars of one sport together for a single 100-mile race. Despite once being called the Masters of automobile competition, it was perhaps more of a “skins game,” the concept being to find the all-around racing champ by putting competitors in cars that were identically prepared. The only variable was the adjustment of the steering wheel and seat position to accommodate the size of the driver. The pit crews were put together by IROC itself, preventing any driver from having a team that might try to tweak things during a race.

After the four events, the winner was awarded a $1 million prize, which made it one of the most lucrative series going. When the series began in 1974, it took a high-end approach, as drivers tooled around various venues in Porsches. From 1975-89, Camaros were the vehicles of choice, while Dodge Daytonas were used from 1990-93.

Dodge Avengers took to the tracks in 1994 and 1995, and from 1996 to the end, guys like Mark Martin and Tony Stewart competed in Pontiac Trans Ams.

If there was one major knock to IROC it was that it was heavily weighted in favor of stock car drivers. It would include stars of open-wheel series and even occasionally World of Outlaws pilots, but the races were run on NASCAR tracks in cars that were most like NASCAR machines. The first six champions were open-wheel guys, but the last 20 were NASCAR Cup drivers. Martin was the most dominant, claiming five crowns, while the late Dale Earnhardt won the title four times.

Often an IROC race was lost in the media and spectator shuffle of a big NASCAR weekend, usually run on a Saturday before a Busch (now Nationwide) event. Still, it was hard to find a driver who didn’t like both the concept and the competition.

“I’ve been so proud to compete against the best of the best in the IROC series,” says 1979 champion Mario Andretti. “It’s been a great part of my career, and I don’t think I could have truly considered my career complete unless I would have competed in IROC.”

With sponsorship dollars at a premium – even NASCAR and the IRL have issues in that department – IROC proved to be the odd series out.

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