Few drivers in the Sprint Cup Series get to exit the sport in the manner of their own choosing. This season, Mark Martin will have the opportunity to do just that as he completes the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports.
The union of Martin and Hendrick Motorsports was a win-win for both parties as Mark was going to be stepping back into a fulltime ride that would afford him the opportunity to not only compete for wins, but to also make a run at the series championship that had eluded him throughout his Hall of Fame-type career. Hendrick Motorsports benefited from the tremendous fan following that Mark had accumulated over the years, plus it got a driver that would be a team player, which would complete its already established stable of superstars in Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin began racing at the Sprint Cup level in 1981, but it wasn’t until he joined forces with Jack Roush in 1988 that his career took off. During their 19 years together they posted 35 wins, along with 230 top-5 and 361 top-10 finishes. Looking at the stats from another angle shows that nearly half of his Roush starts ended in at least a top-10 finish.
Those eye-popping numbers also showed up in the final point standings each season. He finished second while with Roush, four times at the end of the season with his closest being in 1990 when Dale Earnhardt Sr. won what was then the Winston Cup championship by only 26 points.
Roush was able to turn the success that he and Martin had into a multi-team operation that at one time fielded five highly competitive race teams that resulted in two series titles. Although Martin was never able to finish in the top spot, his teammates Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth did win championships for Roush.
Following his last year with Roush in 2006, he ran a part-time Sprint Cup schedule and also began to run some Nationwide races for Rick Hendrick. It was during these two years that Hendrick began to see up close the work ethic and tremendous talent of Martin that eventually led to Hendrick signing him to a full-time Sprint Cup contract for the 2009 season. The 50-year-old Martin didn’t disappoint Hendrick as he posted five wins and was the only driver in the field during the last race of the season to have a mathematical chance of overtaking teammate and eventual series champion Jimmie Johnson.
It was during this run in 2009 that Martin signed on for two more full-time seasons with Hendrick. Martin was unable to recapture the magic of the 2009 season this past year as he failed to win a race or make the Chase. Complicating matters midway through the season was the news that Hendrick had signed Kasey Kahne for the upcoming season and, with no open rides in 2011 at HMS, speculation immediately began to swirl that Martin would not finish the final year of his contract with Hendrick.
Martin and Hendrick are two of the great gentlemen in the sport and true to the ink on the contract, both said that they would be together next season. He will have a new crew chief in Lance McGrew this season and both he and Hendrick hope that the new pairing will result in his return to victory lane.
Martin now has a chance to control his future and go out on his own terms. There is no reason not to believe that he can once again win races and make the Chase, but more importantly at season’s end, he will be able to choose the path he wants to take for next season.
If he never races another race after this season, he had the type of career that few have ever had. If he does decide to take another ride for 2012 either on a full-time or part-time basis, some owner will be getting a driver that can take him to victory lane while making everyone involved with his operation a better person. Either way, Mark has earned the privilege of going out the way he wants.