With the most wins during the NASCAR Sprint Cup "regular season" as well as a victory at Loudon, New Hampshire yesterday in the Chase for the Championship opener, Mark Martin solidified his position as the guy to beat in 2009. This is a major accomplishment for the once-semi-retired driver now enjoying a career renaissance at an age when most drivers have hung up their racing helmets. It's even more impressive given that Martin is the newest member of Hendrick Motorsports' four-car powerhouse lineup. The roster includes the three-time defending champion, Jimmie Johnson; a four-time champion, Jeff Gordon; and the sport's most visible and popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
As I think about the upcoming Sunday Sprint Cup race at Dover, a track that fortunately I'm able to visit each season, I remember the one time I saw Mark Martin visit Gatorade Victory Lane in person. It was after a crazy afternoon of stock-car racing in early June of 2004. There was a "big one" that day that rivaled any at Daytona or Talladega, only at a slower speed and about one-tenth the space. 19 cars were wrecked out of the race with 54 laps to go. It was in fact the largest accident of the 2004 season. In that race, Mark Martin demonstrated what the Sports Illustrated article recapping it referred to as his "calm aggression." It was the perfect way to describe his driving during that long (4h, 7m), turbulent (11 cautions for 90 laps) afternoon. Starting 7th after a solid qualifying effort on Friday, Martin waited patiently for the right time to go to the front. With 19 circuits remaining at the high-banked, one-mile concrete oval, the fastest guy all day, Kasey Kahne, slid in some oil in turn three and handed the lead to Martin's Roush Racing Ford. Martin never looked back and high-tailed to the win.
Another important Sunday of NASCAR racing awaits Mark Martin in The First State on September 27th. There is no question that he'll be the most sought-after member of the driver corps among the throng of media that will assemble. Nestled between the large cities of Baltimore, Washington D.C. and Philadelphia and a state capital in its own right, Dover is always a well-covered race.
I can only hope that one member of the working motorsports press will ask a question of Mark Martin that I would love to know the real answer to right now. What is his relationship with Jack Roush like these days, now that he's driving for Rick Hendrick? Also, what would it mean to that relationship with Roush were he to go on and win the Championship in his Chevy, after all those close calls (12 top-five points finishes, three times a runner-up) riding in Roush's Blue Oval machines?
I'm certain that if Martin were to answer those questions publically, he'd say all the right, P.R.-friendly things and that he and Jack are good pals even if they are rivals now and aren't around each other as much. But I wonder, deep down inside these two ultra-competitive men and racers, what is it like these days? Of course, who knows if they were ever super-tight back when Martin was driving for Roush? We just assume they were given that they were an owner/driver combination for 19 seasons, so something had to be clicking there.
I guess the best way for these questions to be answered will be for Martin to win the Championship and sit at the head table at the Champions Banquest in Las Vegas (yeah, it's not in New York anymore) with Roush alongside at the other end of the table with his 2009 Chase-participating team members. There, we are more likely to see the real emotions of both men and the kind of impact that Mark Martin's first championship coming in a Hendrick Chevrolet would have on their relationship.