Ageless Champ

As NASCAR’s oldest full-time driver, Mark Martin is peerless on the track, where he’s having a career year – by Kay Bell


There’s a saying that old age and treachery beat youth and enthusiasm.

Treacherous isn’t a word commonly used to describe Mark Martin, but this season he’s proving that having run a few more miles around the tracks can be an advantage.

With the race to get into the Chase for the Championship winding down at press time, Martin is hanging in the hunt. Even more notable, he’s on pace to have a career year.

He started off the 2009 season in a manner any driver would love, winning a front-row start at the Daytona 500 a month after he turned 50. As I write this he’s racked up four poles and four wins. The last time Martin came close to similar results was in 1998, when he notched seven wins. Unfortunately for him, that year Jeff Gordon had 13 himself and took the series championship; Martin finished second.

But this year the pride of Batesville, Ark., might be able to turn the tables on his now-teammate Gordon. If Martin can make it into the Chase, when the standings are reconfigured for the last 10 races his wins would give him a nice lead on most of the other competitors.

Regardless of how 2009 turns out, if you’re a fan anywhere near Martin’s age (and I’m in that category), you also have to admit you’re loving his on-track success. Few things are as gratifying as watching someone in your demographic succeed.

Now I’m not foolish enough to think this will last. I know eventually youth will be served. But as long as Martin is running at the front of the pack, I am going to enjoy watching him leave NASCAR whippersnappers in the dust.

It’s not that I don’t like some of the kids. Nineteen-year-old Joey Logano seems like a genuinely nice young man, and he’s starting to find his racing rhythm. Kasey Kahne is 10 years older than Logano, but by anyone’s measure he is still a young gun. And then there is, of course, 24-year-old Kyle Busch, the poster boy for all things youthful, including enthusiasm, indiscretion and, his key to redemption, on-track success.

It’s no secret why these guys were sought after by team owners. NASCAR is a business that relies heavily on sponsorship money. And racecar sponsors are like any other advertiser; they want their brands showcased by someone in the same age range as their target customers.

Young drivers also offer a benefit to owners: Promising but inexperienced drivers can usually be signed to lower-cost contracts. So in the last few years younger drivers have become the rage. In fact, NASCAR became so concerned about kids in cars that in 2002 it declared drivers must be 18 before they can compete in its top three series. But as soon as those drivers blew out those 18 birthday cake candles, they hit the tracks, and things have not been the same.

Until this year. Thanks to Mark Martin’s success, we no longer are subject to commentators talking about “youngest this” and “youngest that.” OK, so now we get “oldest this” and “oldest that,” but hey, it’s about time things turned the generational corner.

So fellow AARP members, enjoy it while you can. Mark wants to run again in 2010, and Rick Hendrick likely will let him stay in the 5 car, keeping his younger replacement in the minors a bit longer. But next year is probably Mark’s finale.

Once Mark does call it quits, we’ll be left with today’s kid drivers – and they are not going to stick around to welcome middle age on the track. By the time they put in 20 years, they’ll be just in their 30s. That’s a good time to take the money they’ve earned and spend it off track while they’re still young.

Of course, we aging fans will still have Tony Stewart. Smoke seems to be the only guy with the skill and personality to keep driving until he forces NASCAR to implement a too-old-to-drive age limit.

Kay Bell is an Austin, Texas-based writer. When she’s not yelling at her television during NASCAR races, she blogs about taxes and other financial topics at www.dontmesswithtaxes.typepad.com.

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