News & Media

Caraviello: Martin content to race on his terms, help MWR

February 15, 2012, David Caraviello,

Mark Martin was 22 years old in 1981, when he launched his career in NASCAR's premier division with a five-race slate that saw him win two pole positions and score a third-place finish at Martinsville. He was standing in a barn in Liberty, Ind., when he received a call on a telephone nailed to a post. It was from Waddell Wilson, the legendary crew chief and engine builder, who wanted to know if Martin was interested in driving a No. 28 car that was among the best on the circuit.

It was a peach of a ride, in a vehicle that Buddy Baker, Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison and Davey Allison all would go on to enjoy success. The car would win the Daytona 500 three times, once with Baker and twice with Yarborough. It was the big career break any young driver could hope for -- but Martin listened to Wilson, looked at his own car, and then turned down the offer.

"My challenge is to try to help this organization get stronger, get better, and achieve their goals."


"I said, 'Nah, I'd rather do my own deal.' Was that the stupidest thing in the world, or not?" Martin said, laughing. "Cale won the Daytona 500 about two years in a row not long after that in the 28 car. The 28 car was a rocket ship. That don't mean I could have drove it that good. That don't mean I wouldn't have gotten fired in five races. ... Was that a smart move or a bad move? It seems like a bad move right now, because I sure would have liked to try my luck at it. But you know, it might have turned out bad, and things would have been completely different."

Looking back on it now, it's difficult to argue with the result. Although the twin white whales of the Daytona 500 and the Cup Series championship have eluded him, Martin still has managed to compile a Hall of Fame career for himself, one that includes 40 victories and will continue this season in a limited schedule with Michael Waltrip Racing. Although there have been struggles along the way -- that breakdown-plagued first full-time season of 1982 "took me down to the ground," Martin said -- so much of what he's done has come down to fit, from turning down Wilson, to long relationships with Jack Roush and Rick Hendrick, to his latest move to a MWR team that hopes Martin can help it take the next step.

Martin is 53 now, and given his partial schedule -- 24 points races and the Sprint All-Star exhibition -- the championship quest seems off the table for good. The result is a driver who seems more comfortable and relaxed than he's ever been, who has taken to Twitter like a fiend and appears in silly commercials alongside a car owner whose loose demeanor seems to be rubbing off on his new driver. Make no mistake about it, there are pressures; although Martin is locked into the Daytona 500 thanks to a deal with FAS Lane Racing, he understands how badly MWR wants to reach the next level, and he's now part of that process. Competition director Scott Miller and driver Clint Bowyer are other key offseason upgrades for an organization that wants to more consistently win races and challenge for Chase berths.

And then there's Martin, a veteran, steadying presence on a team with two other relatively young drivers, someone whose experience and accomplishments add weight to his suggestions, and who seems to relish the idea of racing in the events he wants, in the limited schedule he's happy with, among people he's fond of such as Miller, new crew chief Rodney Childers, and team vice president Ty Norris. "I just feel comfortable," he said, and you can see it in his face. He'll split the No. 55 car with Waltrip, running a limited schedule similar to the one he did with Ginn Racing in 2007-08, when he was more than competitive and nearly won the Daytona 500 despite the fact that the team around him was strapped for cash. That's not the case in his new home.

"This is big," he said. "They've got good people, and I know how hard it is to take that last step."

He's seen it firsthand, all those years with Roush when the team was chasing the championship, and even with a Hendrick organization that leveled off into something of a plateau after Jimmie Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon swept the top three positions in points in 2009. MWR surely wants to evolve into the next Joe Gibbs Racing or Stewart-Haas, but prior to Martin's arrival, the team suffered from a dearth of personnel who knew what it was like to work at an organization that won championships at NASCAR's highest level. He won't race full time, he won't contend for a title, but Martin just might be Michael Waltrip Racing's missing link.

"You know Mark Martin is good," Bowyer said. "There's nothing to prove there, there's no question about that. So if I'm an owner, if I'm a chassis fabricator, anything in an organization -- when you have a guy like Mark Martin come on board and does have that success, you can't look at him and say, 'Well, he's not giving 100 percent.' Mark Martin doesn't give anything less than 100 percent. So you know then and there. Maybe, if Martin Truex [Jr.] is telling me this, do I buy into it 100 percent? When Mark Martin shows up and tells you something, there's no question. You don't even have a question or a shadow of a doubt in your mind."

"With his level of experience and all the things that he's seen and all the things that he's done, there's going to be things that he helps us with that I haven't even thought of yet," Miller added. "Just bringing all that experience to the table. He's going to be one of those guys where, if I'm having a problem with something, or we're having a problem with the cars, I won't hesitate to pull him aside and get his take on it, and what he thinks needs to be done to make it all better."

The relationship is a symbiotic one. Martin said he'll learn as much from his younger teammates -- Truex in his estimation is the best in NASCAR at running up against the wall, something he wants to get better at -- as they will from him. He can appreciate and identify with the family concerns that led Yarborough to step away from full-time racing, and hopes he can remain as competitive in a limited role as the three-time champion was back in his era. He can envision himself as something of a team manager one day, helping another organization try and take the next step, in a role not dissimilar from the one he's undertaking now.

But that's in the future. Right now Martin is enjoying where he is, content with himself and his role and his potential. While he still wants to win races -- his last triumph was three seasons ago, with Hendrick in the No. 5 car -- getting to Victory Lane isn't the ultimatum that it once was. In some ways it's similar to when he received that long-ago phone call from Waddell Wilson, and turned the crew chief down because he was more comfortable racing on his terms. It hearkens back to when he left Roush, and raced a limited schedule rather than stepping completely away from the Cup Series like so many thought he should. Comfort matters to Mark Martin, and this limited schedule with MWR feels as natural as sliding behind a steering wheel.

"I'll take a win. I'll take one," Martin said. "But my challenge is to try to help this organization get stronger, get better, and achieve their goals. That's the big thing. I love to win. I don't love to run in the back. I think we can run good. ... When I was younger, it was all about winning, and everything else in life lined up behind that. I'm not done growing up, but I've matured a little bit since then, and I have my priorities where they should be. My family being happy and me doing what I love are all very important to me. I wouldn't want to go out there and do a start-and-park. But I would consider working with an organization that wasn't on the Michael Waltrip level that had plans of trying to get to this level. Because that would still be fun."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.