Martin's streak of 621 starts comes to screeching halt

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The show went on at Bristol Motor Speedway
without Mark Martin.

The Nextel Cup points leader lived up to his word Friday and
handed the keys to his car to newcomer Regan Smith, snapping his
streak of 621 consecutive starts.

As Martin moved to the top of the leaderboard, where he holds
an eight-point advantage over Jeff Gordon, many questioned whether
he would get out of the car, likely forfeiting his chance at the
Cup title that has eluded him over 19 full seasons.

But come Sunday, Martin will be at a cookout with friends and
family at his Daytona Beach home, watching the race on TV.

"Turning the reins over to me, it's a pretty big deal to hop in
as a rookie into the car that's leading the points," Smith said.
"It's pretty big shoes for me to fill."

The 23-year-old will make his series debut Sunday after spending
the past five years in the Busch Series, where he's only scored a
pair of top-10 finishes in 90 career starts. Still, Smith was
picked to be Martin's protege as the veteran tries to ease into

If the tight confines of Bristol's bullring wasn't enough to
deal with, Smith also must contend with the launch of the Car of

The car, which spent seven years in development, is expected to
improve safety, cut team costs and foster increased competition.
Driving the new car is an adjustment for the veterans, an adventure
for the newcomers.

"I look at the Car of Tomorrow as just another race car that
all of us have to deal with," said Smith, who tested the COT here
last month. "I don't see it being anything major. It's a race car,
and we've all driven many different types of cars in our careers."

Instead, Smith said Bristol -- a .533-mile ring that produces
door-to-door racing and numerous wrecks -- will provide the biggest

"I think everyone would agree that Bristol is not the easiest
track," he said. "It's a tough place when you're having a good
day. The mind-set from our end is not to expect a win or a top-10
finish. I want to finish the race, be on the lead lap and have the
car in one piece. That's a tall order for Bristol, but with some
luck, I think we can deliver that result."

Martin's not worried.

"Regan's biggest challenge at Bristol will be to try to avoid
everyone else's troubles," he said. "Obviously, we'd like to see
him run all 500 laps, and that's not easy to do even for a veteran
up there."

Martin plans to watch the race on TiVo so he can replay "the
wrecks, moving them back and going forward and watching them in
slow motion," which also will allow him to critique Smith when
it's over.

Martin's embracing his new role as a mentor.

He'll spend Saturday at Columbia Motorsports Park in Lake City,
Fla., helping son Matt and NASCAR newcomer Ricky Carmichael in a
late model race.

Matt Martin, 15, has years of experience behind the wheel, but
Carmichael, a motocross star, is just getting started. The
27-year-old driver is in Ginn Racing's development system and has
done five tests, but this will be his first time on the track with
other cars.

Martin said he thinks Carmichael will be a quick study.

"This is the first step in converting from two wheels to four,
and we're going to take it easy and not try to get in too deep here
on this first race," Martin said. "Then kind of ramp it up with
each event following this first weekend. But this weekend is all
about getting comfortable in the race car and getting comfortable
with other cars around. And it's just going to be a lot of fun."