Veteran hangs with 50 Cent, nearly lands elusive 500 victory
Mark Martin, ever gracious on the heels of defeat, isn’t saying if this year’s Daytona 500 was his last.
It will be remembered as one of his best. Maybe not on par with the stirring 2007 battle with Kevin Harvick, both cars thundering toward the checkered flag while cars crashed in their wake, but it was memorable no less.
The Michael Waltrip Racing driver, 54 and still driving as if he’s just another 20-something, finished third in this year’s season-opener. It was his 29th start in NASCAR’s Big Event for the Sprint Cup Series. Only fellow driver Terry Labonte, also running a limited schedule these days, was in the field in 1982 and again on Sunday. A baker’s dozen of those who rolled off pit road hadn’t even been born back then.
“First of all, I feel extremely grateful for the opportunity,” Martin, seated alongside runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr., said afterward. “There are a number of drivers that didn't get to have a shot at the Daytona 500, and I was at least close enough to have an outside shot. So I feel extremely lucky for that opportunity.
“I've told you guys over and over again. I'm not bitter about the things I haven't accomplished. I'm pretty damn proud of the things I have. That's how I feel about it.”
Martin, like so many others, had a chance. With restrictor-plate racing, that’s the norm. Hook up with the right partner and every opening is an opportunity.
Such was the case Sunday, when he latched onto the back of Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 for the final six-lap shootout. Off the track, sponsors National Guard and Aaron’s have never been so close. On it, they seemed inseparable.
If Earnhardt Jr., regarded as one of the best plate racers, was going to the front, then Martin was going along for the ride.
Competitors are no longer allowed to converse with one another via team radios, but that doesn’t mean spotters, who intently watch the action from afar, can’t relay information. A plan was already in place before the green flag appeared for the final time.
“Well, we did … what we thought would be right,” Martin said. “The spotters did have a discussion before the restart. Obviously I knew Junior had a fast car and is one of the masters here; certainly (I) would trust his judgment.
“I was in a position where I needed to pass a bunch of cars in order to get in contention to win. So we did that. If things would have got crazy enough, maybe we could have got the big trophy.
“That's how it went."
Things didn’t get crazy, but they got fast. And Jimmie Johnson raced away to become a two-time Daytona 500 champion.
It was a day that began under somber tones, gray skies fitting after the bedlam that ensued a day earlier at DIS when a Nationwide car slammed into the catch fence and at least 28 fans were treated for injuries. Yet just as fitting, given the excitement, size and scope of the 500, it somehow wrapped up under sunny skies.
Martin said he awoke mindful of the previous day’s incident, one “which is something that we cannot have happen.”
“I was happy to see the drivers OK,” he said. “It was sad to see some of our fans get injured. I was happy today that we were able to race and not have a huge accident.”
There were accidents. A nine-car crash knocked out several of the favorites early in the race. But nothing came close to the severity of the storm that hit the speedway the previous day.
Martin has seen it happen before. It’s part of the risk, part of the allure, some might suggest.
“That's how it plays out,” he said. “Sometimes you have 'em and sometimes you don't. There was plenty of recipe to have a big one there at the end, we just didn't.
“Probably next time, they probably will … in July. And I’ll be on the couch. That will be good."
His last Daytona 500? Perhaps even Martin doesn’t yet know the answer to that one. He knows that he was close this time, and could take solace in that.
A huge fan of rap, Martin chatted briefly with the artist 50 Cent prior to the race, telling him “if we won the race, he would have to change his game to 55 Cent for one day.”
The No. 55 adorns the sides and roof of Martin’s MWR Toyota.
“I was trying really hard,” a grinning Martin said, “to get that name change for one day.”
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