Martin easy to like through thick and thin

April, 20, 2009

Not enough NASCAR people offer specific examples of why they like and respect Mark Martin -- and why they're genuinely happy for him when he wins, as he did Saturday night at Phoenix.

Well, here's an up close and personal example.

We'll have to rewind through a 15-year period, but stick with me -- the 1990 part is both vital and gut-wrenching.

Down to the wire of that '90 championship, there were two contenders: Martin and the relentless player of mind games, Dale Earnhardt.

The day before the penultimate race of the season, at Phoenix, the two contenders were brought into the media center for a joint news conference about the championship.

No sooner had they sat down in front of the microphones than Earnhardt went to work on Martin's head.

The specialty concession of Phoenix International Raceway was homemade lemonade, and the track publicist brought Martin and Earnhardt each a large cup.

"This got any vodka in it?" Earnhardt cracked into the microphone, making sure everybody could hear.

"Well, no," said the publicist.

"We want some vodka in this, don't we Mark?" Earnhardt pressed.

Martin said not a word, although the allusion was clear to the savvy in the room.

Martin in his youth had had a drinking problem. That was back in the time where you see the gaps in his Cup career statistics chart. He ran a full season in 1982, part of a season for four different owners in '83, disappeared entirely from the Cup series in '84 and '85 and didn't return full-time until Jack Roush hired him in '88.

By Phoenix 1990, Martin hadn't had a drink in years -- still hasn't, 19 years later -- but Earnhardt kept boring in.

There would be a test session the following week, at Atlanta, going into the finale there.

"I'll tell you how me and Mark are gonna test," Earnhardt said. "We're gonna go out and make a lap, and then we're gonna come in and have a beer. Ain't we Mark?"

Martin said nothing, remained stoic-faced. In the audience I whispered to a colleague that Earnhardt had played some harsh mind games in his time, but this was the worst.

"Then we're gonna make another lap, and come in and have another beer. And another lap, and another beer. Ain't we, Mark?"

Earnhardt won that championship, but it wasn't because of that particular mind game. It hadn't fazed Martin; it was just the cruelty of it that stuck with me for years.

Now fast-forward about 15 years. Martin was in the Chase. I wrote a column about the diminutive man who by then had become known as "the best driver never to win the championship."

I cited all the times he'd barely missed the title -- four times he'd finished second, and four times third -- and pointed out '90 as his first near miss, complete with the Earnhardt story.

Next race was Talladega, just like this week. At the desk of a hotel in Anniston, Ala., I ran into a Ford publicist who said, "Mark wants to see you."

I thought, "Oh, hell. He's upset that I dredged up his old drinking problem."

Next morning, I stepped up into the trailer and saw him up in the lounge. He waved me in and said sit down. It took him a few seconds of gathering his thoughts before he spoke.

"I just wanted to thank you," he said. "I had no idea anybody realized what he [Earnhardt] was doing that day -- let alone that anybody would remember it all these years."

He wasn't upset about the column. He appreciated it.

That's the kind of man the stars of NASCAR were lined up to congratulate in Victory Lane at Phoenix on Saturday night.



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