Mark Martin Had no Time for Pain

NEW YORK (Dec. 2, 1999) Mark Martin has been a paragon of consistency in the 1990s in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Martin is the only driver in that time span that has finished in the top-10 in the annual point standings every year. But to ...

NEW YORK (Dec. 2, 1999) Mark Martin has been a paragon of consistency in the 1990s in the NASCAR Winston Cup Series. Martin is the only driver in that time span that has finished in the top-10 in the annual point standings every year.

But to Martin's credit, to achieve in 1999 his fourth third-place finish in the last 11 years to many observers marked Martin as a hero of the highest order. He won twice and claimed a Bud Pole, 19 top-5s and 26 top-10 finishes in 34 races.

That's impressive enough if you don't take into account that Martin was a virtual cripple for much of the season. He was hampered by a back problem that he's endured for several years, but even more so by multiple injuries he suffered in a crash in practice at Daytona in July.

Those injuries, including a fractured tibial plateau, fractured wrist and fractured ribs, caused him to be lifted into and out of his Valvoline/Cummins Ford for several races. To his credit, Martin never missed a lap due to his ills, and typically, he wanted no special credit for it either.

"It's OK with me if people think that," Martin said this week, in response to a query of whether he had established a new plateau for personal toughness in the face of adversity. "I just look at it as doing what I wanted to do."

The desire to continue doing just that caused Martin to schedule surgery to perform a lumbar fusion of his spine the day after the season finale NAPA 500 at Atlanta. Martin is able to get in and out of bed during the week preceding Friday's NASCAR Winston Cup Awards Banquet, but under doctor's orders and his own good sense he will be unable to attend.

Martin will accept his reward using a pre-recorded videotape. It seems a hollow reward for a driver who undoubtedly is the best pilot never to have won a series championship, but to that end, Martin is trying to recuperate now so he will have the best opportunity to achieve that goal in 2000.

If misfortune in racing can build character, Martin's is solid gold after a 1999 season that promised much, but ultimately failed to deliver thanks to several jagged peaks and valleys of performance.

The season started out on a high note when Martin won the Bud Shootout at Daytona. The win in the special event for the previous season's Bud Pole winners was Martin's first in the series on the 2.5-mile superspeedway, but it was not a precursor for Speedweeks success. One week later, Martin started the Daytona 500 in ninth, but finished in 31st after he was involved in a 12-car accident. Once again, Martin had to dig himself out of a hole to begin the championship chase.

Speedweeks at Daytona was a microcosm of the season to come.

Martin made up a lot of ground the following weekend at Rockingham, where he visited its Victory Lane for the first time since 1989, when he scored his and Roush Racing's first series victory. The win boosted him from 31st in the standings all the way up to eighth place.

On the upside of a curve, strong top-10 finishes followed at Las Vegas, Atlanta and Darlington, which left Martin sitting in fourth place in the standings. But his luck changed at Texas when he cut a right front tire while leading the race. The crew spent 80 laps repairing the damage and Martin returned to the track, but finished a disappointing 34th. The poor finish dropped him back to sixth in the points.

"There is such a thing as momentum," Martin said of the 'magic' that seemed to come and go for his team in 1999. "The good part is that is seems to be magical. The bad part is that a $2 part can break it."

The team picked up the pace in April with three top-5s in three races. Martin challenged Rusty Wallace for the win at Bristol, but had to settle for second. He finished fifth at Martinsville and third at Talladega. By the end of the month, he was third in the points and climbing fast.

But again, typically in this harsh season, Martin next suffered a slight setback in his quest for a championship, in the next race, at California. After starting third based on points, Martin ran with the leaders all day until his engine gave up on lap 196 of 250. The early end to his day gave him a 38th-place finish and moved him back to fifth in the points, 205 points behind the leader, ironically his teammate Jeff Burton.

The Richmond race in May started a string of great finishes for Martin. In the next six races, Martin earned five top-5s and finished in the top-10 in all six events. He was third in the standings at the end of the first half of the season.

Given the close relationship he has with Burton, both inside and outside the sport, it was strange that that point of the season put Martin back in front of Burton and also came right in conjunction with the nadir of his campaign.

"My relationship with Jeff Burton is complex," said Martin, who himself is both simple and complex at once. "He is the best friend I have in racing now as far as having things in common. Jimmy Fennig (crew chief) is still my best friend in racing, but Jeff and I have the same interests, desires and goals.

"We rely on each other and use each other to sound our personal thoughts, feelings and strategies. We figure two heads are better than one. Jeff is truly loyal in the face of any kind of competitive disappointment. That is hard to find and that has meant a lot to me."

Martin would need all that support after the team returned to Daytona to start the second half of the season with the Pepsi 400. Martin took the car that he considered the best restrictor plate car he had ever driven, the same car that won the Bud Shootout and finished third at Talladega.

He qualified third for the Pepsi 400 and was strong in the final "Happy Hour" practice Friday night until he cut a right front tire, which sent him into the wall on the backstretch. The car sustained heavy damage but no more so than Martin. Despite his injuries, Martin raced the next evening and finished 17th in the backup car, and maintained his points position in the process.

Right after the Pepsi 400, Martin underwent the first of two surgeries he would undergo this year. Then, only two days after that knee surgery, Martin climbed back into his Taurus to qualify at New Hampshire. He was forced to take his first and only provisional of the year and started 37th. Amazingly, Martin drove the entire race and finished sixth to retain his third place in the points. A third-place finish at Pocono the next week moved him up to second in the points, trailing ultimate champion Dale Jarrett by 254 points.

The stretch run of the season was alternately giddy and cruel for Martin.

The month of August was strong for the 40-year-old driver, as he posted four top-10 finishes at Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Michigan and Bristol. September started out well with a fourth-place finish at Darlington, but things took a turn for the worse under the lights at Richmond the following week. Martin's night ended early when smoke began to spew from the car on lap 366 of 400. He finished 35th.

The next week at New Hampshire was not much better. He was involved in an accident on lap 5 and then again on lap 126. There was damage to the suspension, and Martin finished 17th, one lap down. The month ended up great with a dominating win at Dover. The crew brought back the same car that won in 1998, and Martin led 161 of 400 laps en route to his second victory of the season. The win boosted him back up to second in the standings, but he trailed Jarrett by 257 points.

The month of October brought Martin two more top-10s at Charlotte and Rockingham, but more importantly, it brought Martin his only Bud Pole of the year. Martin set the qualifying mark with a lap of 157.383 mph to earn a position in next year's Bud Shootout At Daytona.

Martin's team rounded out the season with three more top-5 finishes at Phoenix, Miami and Atlanta in November. The closing to the season actually enabled Martin to finish in the top-6 in the standings for the 11th straight year. But more than that, the strong run to the season closer has caused him to be enthused about the near future.

"We had a great season," said Martin, comparing 1999 to 1998, when he won seven times and finished second to three-time champion Jeff Gordon. "We may not have won as many races as we did last year, but the effort on this team was as great as ever. My team supported me through all of my injuries and never once doubted my ability as a driver. I am already looking forward to next year and believe we can do even better."

Ford's teams have a new 2000 Taurus body style to contend with but Martin is confident his Roush Racing cohorts can meet that challenge.

"Our team is really strong and I believe we responded better than any other Ford team to the new (Taurus) body style in 1998 and hopefully we can do it again this year," Martin said. "I think we will be more on-target right out of the box."

Martin will achieve that with the aid of Roush Racing "teammate" Greg Biffle, one of Roush's NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series drivers who will test Martin's cars in January, allowing Martin to recuperate right into February. Martin said in addition to a "refurbished" body he'd also have a new attitude on tap.

"This is the first time ever in my racing career that I will begin the season with a fresh state of mind," Martin said, "and my hope is that it will be good for me to be removed from racing so I can embrace it in February."

It will be a good thing because with a championship-defending Jarrett, a revitalized Dale Earnhardt, sophomore Tony Stewart with a year's experience and always tough nuts like Gordon, 1999 championship runner-up Bobby Labonte and Burton there's no telling how tough it will be to score his 12th top-10 finish.

But Martin thinks he knows.

"Next year's racing will be a more exciting championship battle than ever before in history," Martin said. "I can't see how it would be possible for it to be anything less than the best. It should be the most exciting battle and that is what it's supposed to be."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt , Jeff Burton , Jeff Gordon , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Mark Martin