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CUP: Martin’s Ville?

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How long has Mark Martin been driving in what is now the Sprint Cup Series?

Consider:

• The track where he made his first series start is no longer on the schedule.

• The track where he scored his first pole is no longer on the schedule.

• The track where he won for the first time is no longer on the schedule.

Those locations would be North Wilkesboro (1981), Nashville (1981) and Rockingham (1989).

Martin is a lifer. He has tried to remove himself from the sport, and it just doesn’t work.

Now he finds himself standing right in the middle of the spotlight once more.

Martin, 54, was named Thursday night to replace Denny Hamlin in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyotas while Hamlin recovers from a back injury. Hamlin is expected to miss five races, although the number could be more or less depending on the pace of his recovery.

Martin will be “on loan” from Michael Waltrip Racing, another Toyota team, while driving for Gibbs. Martin is running a part-time Cup schedule for MWR.

Of all the drivers who might have been available to sub for Hamlin (and including many who aren’t), Martin would be the first choice among most teams in the garage. He is smart, dependable, educated in both hard knocks and “head-to-accelerator” learning and can be counted on to return a car to the garage after a race in one piece. Rarely is Martin involved in an accident of his own making.

Martin has raced in four of this season’s five races. Despite missing Bristol, he is 25th in Sprint Cup points, placing him ahead of nine other drivers who have been in all five events.

Martin’s career numbers are staggering. He has 858 starts, 40 wins, 271 top fives and 449 top 10s.

At Martinsville, where he’ll debut in the No. 11 car next week, he has raced 48 times, winning twice. Few would be surprised if he wins or checks in with a top-five run next week.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Martin’s recent career is that he hasn’t won a Cup race since 2009, when he won five times – at Phoenix, Darlington, Michigan, Chicago and New Hampshire – for Hendrick Motorsports. He finished second in points that season, the fifth time he has been second and his last real run at the championship.

Now, a new chapter.

It’s fun to be Mark Martin, and it’s fun to watch him continue a long journey.

Mike Hembree is NASCAR Editor for SPEED.com and has been covering motorsports for 31 years. He is a six-time winner of the National Motorsports Press Association Writer of the Year Award.