Category archive: Mark Martin

DARLINGTON, S.C. -- Mark Martin had one earnest request to the media on Friday.

"I would appreciate it if you wouldn't write that I'm coming back for one more shot at the championship," Martin said at Darlington Raceway, in his first news conference since re-upping for another full season with Hendrick Motorsports next year.

Martin, 50, known in the NASCAR garages as "the best driver never to win the championship," is a four-time runner-up for the Cup, and has finished in the hunt eight times in his career.

But he has stopped fretting about that, and would like for the talk to stop.

"I do this because I love racing with all my heart," he said.

It took a partial season in 2007 for him to get his priorities in order, he added. He had to break some of his obsession with championships.

"Just for example, in 1999, on Friday night before the 400 on Saturday at Daytona in July, I broke my wrist, my ribs and my knee [in a practice crash]," he said. "I did that because I wanted to win a championship."

Later, "I raced for a year and a half with excruciating back pain," he said. "I never missed a practice session, I never missed a test session, I never missed anything. Because I wanted to win a championship.

"I was allowing that points thing to affect how I felt about racing. I focused on that more than I really realized how much I love it."

Then, "When I finally stepped out of the car and ran 26 [of 36] races in '07, I started gradually realizing how much I love to race. And I'm going to keep it that way. ... I'm not going to try to will more points than we can score at the finish line each week."

The fun of it all set in his mind, and Martin said his conversation with team owner Rick Hendrick about another full season was very brief and to the point.

"After Phoenix [where he won on April 18] was the first conversation I had, and that lasted -- five minutes would be a stretch. The conversation with Rick was probably less than five minutes, probably more like 60 seconds.

"He said that's what he wanted to do, and I said that's what I wanted to do.

"So here we are."

Just for the fun of it, mind you.

PORT ORANGE, Fla. -- A day off at Daytona is a hard thing to bear.

It's not the silence from the speedway -- the peace and quiet is nice enough, here in the middle of Speedweeks.

The trouble is, today -- with the Shootout crowd gone and the larger crowds for the qualifying races and the Daytona 500 still to come -- is too strong a reminder of day-to-day Daytona Beach, when the races aren't in town.

This isn't exactly Margaritaville down here, and driving up and down the beach highway, A-1-A, is hardly a pleasure cruise. Daytona Beach and its suburbs aren't exactly boomtowns. They are weary, faded, salt-corroded.

So I've drifted back down to the south, to my hotel in Port Orange, to blog with my sliding-glass door open, to see and hear the endless sea, which eases the sadness of workaday Daytona.

[+] Enlarge
Daytona Sunset
Chris Gardner/US PresswireWhen the Sprint Cup Series stops in town, Daytona Beach lights up in more ways than one.

The locals are largely a sad lot, the waitresses at the pancake houses and the housekeepers at the beachside hotels, mostly from the Midwest and up East, are struggling to get by, you can tell.

And yet they are amazingly cheerful, upbeat. I don't know how they do it.

Among the elderly walking endlessly up and down the beach, you can distinguish the locals from the snowbirds. The locals are the ones with leathery skins.

There aren't too many, if any, rich and famous along what used to be called the World's Most Famous Beach. Even the Cadillacs and Lincolns are old.

The restaurateurs and bartenders up and down the beach will tell you the NASCAR legions aren't their favorite crowds. The spring-breakers are the worst, damaging property and spending little money. The NASCAR crowds generally behave, but don't spend much.

Oddly enough, the locals love the Bike Week crowds of March the best -- at least, ever since the Outlaws, Hell's Angels and the other serious gangs had it made clear to them they aren't welcome here.

Thousands upon thousands of motorcyclists descend on the area, showing off their custom bikes to one another, paying relatively little attention to the world-class motorcycle races at the speedway.

"I never go to the races, myself," I once heard a guy say on TV, in his star-spangled-banner bandanna. "I just come to look at everybody's scooter."

Not many NASCAR fans realize how troubled day-to-day Daytona really is.

About a dozen years ago, during January NASCAR testing, I was pistol-whipped and robbed in the parking lot of a cigar store that fronts U.S. 92, which runs from the speedway to the beach.

It started out as a carjacking attempt. I got into my rental car with a package of cigars, and when I tried to close the door, it met resistance. I looked up to see a .357 Magnum pointed at my face through the driver's-side window.

At first the two teenagers wanted the car, but when I reached to drop the keys onto the ground, they spotted my watch, and wanted that.

I got one crack on the head with the gun for emphasis. Then when I was deemed too slow producing my wallet, I got whacked on the head again.

Oddly enough, they forgot about the car, grabbed the watch and wallet and ran off. And there I sat, blood pouring down my face, covering a white golf shirt.

A policeman took me to Halifax Medical Center, the hospital where injured drivers are taken. The emergency room there was bedlam. Bloody as I was, and accompanied by a uniformed cop, I was ignored.

It started out as a carjacking attempt. I got into my rental car with a package of cigars, and when I tried to close the door, it met resistance. I looked up to see a .357 Magnum pointed at my face through the driver's-side window.

The policeman tried to get a nurse's attention, and gestured toward me as if the sight of me should be enough.

"He's just gonna have to wait," she said.

After a while, I asked the cop if we could just go. Enough was enough. The gashes in my scalp were superficial anyway.

As we left, somebody thrust a handful of sample packs of antiseptic ointment into my hands.

And that was all the treatment I got that night.

Next day, I met a police detective who would become a friend over the years. It took him a few weeks to find my watch, but he did it. He knew of a pawnbroker he suspected of sending Rolexes to the Middle East, watched the man's place, and one day there was my watch. The detective carried a jeweler's loop with him, and found the serial number that matched.

I had to pay $500 to the pawn shop -- pawnbrokers have a powerful lobby in Tallahassee, the state capital, so that they get paid even for items that prove to be stolen.

I still wear that old Rolex every time I come down here. I have it on right now. It's sort of a badge of survival to me -- and, said the detective, it may have saved my life.

"Those were 90-percent shooters," he said of the teenagers. He figured it was a gang initiation, and said kids that young shoot the victim 90 percent of the time, but that the prize of a Rolex must have been enough for these two.

Once, he took me on a tour of the area just half a block off U.S. 92, the main artery to the beach. He stopped in an empty parking lot just behind an auto-body repair shop.

"Right here, a few weeks ago, there was a gang killing," he said. "They blew the kid's legs off with shotguns before they killed him."

We drove on, past a joint called the Tropicana, locally known as "the Trop." They used to post a uniformed cop on that corner, to keep some semblance of order, until one got stabbed with a sharpened screwdriver.

Outside the Trop, eight or 10 men walked into the street, glassy-eyed, applauding the detectives in the unmarked car, whose faces all these crack addicts recognized.

"Every one of them is holding [crack]," the detective said. "Every one of them. You can count on that."

Beginning with Thursday's qualifying races, fans will zoom happily up and down U.S. 92 in their SUVs and pickups, to and from the speedway, without a care in the world, oblivious to what goes on, on either side of the street.

They don't advertise that sort of thing over at the World Center of Racing.

No use driving up to Ormond Beach, "the birthplace of speed." Long before there was an Indianapolis Motor Speedway (built in 1909), there was racing here, at the Winter Speed Carnival -- the direct ancestor of Speedweeks -- in 1903.

The Ormond Hotel, once the largest wooden structure in the world, with its 5 miles of corridors, winter home to the greatest racers and innovators of the turn of the 20th century -- Henry Ford, the Stanley brothers, Ransom E. Olds, Alexander Winton, William K. Vanderbilt) -- is no more.

The Ormond was demolished in the 1990s to make room for more high-rise condos.

So there are almost no reminders now, of the era that was the springtime of American ingenuity and industry, long before a Washington, D.C., mechanic named William Henry Getty France drifted here and decided to settle in the 1930s, and a decade later organized a fragmented, outlaw brand of motor racing called "stock car racing."

So I sit here gazing at, and listening to, the sounding sea, the same one that rolled in for Olds and Ford and Alexander Winton and the pioneers of the early 1900s.

The sea, and only the sea, remains the same now.

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Ever wonder what happens between a sports figure and a sports journalist after the latter criticizes the former publicly? When they next meet face to face?

Here's an example of the way it should be handled, but usually isn't. And here's how the sports figure can take the journalist's remarks under advisement, actually weigh them -- which almost never happens.

In the season-opening "NASCAR Now" show on ESPN2, during the Monday Roundtable this week, I said Mark Martin is too nice a guy for his own good, that he's too polite to other drivers on the racetrack ... that there's not enough dog-eat-dog in him to win races -- and a championship -- in this era.

[+] Enlarge
Mark Martin
AP Photo/John RaouxNASCAR mainstay Mark Martin on aggressive driving: "I don't feel like changing who I am is necessary to get the job done."

I said it knowing I was sure to see him face to face, and soon. But I get paid for telling the truth as best I see it.

"When you criticize a guy, always write it as if you're going to have lunch with him the next day," I was advised years ago, by one of the wisest editors I've ever worked for. And I've tried to live by that. It cuts down on the cheap shots and exaggerations.

And so, upon arrival here for Speedweek, I sought out Martin right away, early in the morning of Daytona 500 media day Thursday, to face him and talk to him.

As I walked to get a place up front in his media stall, somebody clapped me on the shoulder from behind, and I turned to see Martin, grinning -- beaming. We walked over to his stall together.

I prefaced my first question by reminding him that everyone he's raced against has said Mark Martin races cleaner than anyone else, and --

"I saw you," he said. "I know."

"I was going to tell you what I said up front."

"I know what you said" -- and now he was laughing.

"Is there not enough dog-eat-dog in Mark Martin?" I asked.

"Are you saying would I turn a guy to win the championship? Is that what you're asking?"

"Well, would you rub on him?" I continued. "A lot of times you're so clean with a guy that you don't even rub him."

"I like what Marty [Smith, of ESPN] said to you," Martin said. "I haven't seen Jimmie [Johnson] knock anybody out of the way to win any of his races."

Well, not slam or turn, but Johnson can be aggressive with his fenders and bumper if he needs to be. Martin rarely touches a fender to the other guy.

"So you feel like you can be aggressive enough to win races?"

"I don't feel like changing who I am is necessary to get the job done."

But then he pondered.

"I will do what I do in the future based on split-second decisions. So I really can't tell you."

Seriously now, the man, at age 50, with 35 Cup wins but none since 2005, was thinking.

"Do I understand that I only have so many more opportunities? Yes, I do. But every decision I make, no matter how I answer your question, will be made split-second. And all those things might weigh into my psyche, but at the end of the day, I really can't tell you."

This is not the only fender-rub Martin has gotten from ESPN.com lately. My colleague Terry Blount, in his new book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams and Tracks," lists Martin as the No. 1 most overrated driver.

But Blount sees it the same as I do, saying Martin is too nice a guy on the racetrack.

Martin in no way apologizes for following his conscience.

"I can tell you that I've had a couple of wins where accidents were part of it. Like the Busch race at Bristol with Davey Allison years ago, where Davey was passing me for the win and moved up before he got clear of me. And he wrecked, and I won the race ..."

To this day, "That win doesn't mean anything to me, because that's not how I wanted to win the race," Martin said. "Really, it's how I feel when I lay down at the end of the day that matters most."

After three winless years, and now with a ride with powerful Hendrick Motorsports ...

"I can tell you that I want to win really, really bad."

He was pondering. Really pondering.

"I can't tell you what I'm going to do. I won't be able to answer that question until it's over with."

Don't ever expect to see Martin turn another driver to win. It isn't in him. But he still would be sainted in this sport if he laid a fender on someone to get a win or two in this, the twilight of his career.