Some champions don’t always win championships. Dan Marino, one of the NFL greats at quarterback, never won a championship. Karl Malone and John Stockton, one of the NBA’s greatest one-two punches, never won a championship. One of NASCAR’s great drivers also rides off into the sunset with neither a Sprint Cup or a Nationwide Series title to this credit. With over 96 wins spread over NASCAR’s top three series (40 Cup, 49 Naionwide and 7 truck races,) Mark Martin has rightfully earned the title “”The best driver to never win a championship” according to ESPN.
To be fair, Martin’s trophy case is not devoid of hardware. The pride of Batesville, Arkansas has won five IROC championships, and he also earned four ASA national tour titles. He was also 1977 ASA Rookie of The Year, and in 1998 was named one of NASCAR’s “50 Greatest Drivers.” There’s no need to feel sorry for Martin. Those who know readily recognize that he’s a winner.
Mark Martin’s story of one of perseverance. After running in fits and starts from his rookie season in1982 to 1987, he hit pay dirt in 1988 with then fledgling Roush Racing at the age of 29. From there, Martin ran top ten in 16 out of 19 seasons racing for the Cat In The Hat. In that span, Martin was a four time runner up, and may well have been robbed of a championship by NASCAR in 1990, when a penalty for a carburetor spacer cost him 46 points, culminating in a title for Dale Earnhardt.
The season this fan will always remember is his Harry Gant-like run in 2009. After part-timing it for two years for Bobby Ginn and DEI, Mark Martin reeled off five wins and gave Jimmie Johnson a spirited challenge for the championship. During that span, he became the fourth NASCAR driver over the age of 50 to win a race, joining Gant, Bobby Allison and Morgan Shepherd- some pretty fast company. With Johnson his usual dominating self, an unfortunate wreck at Talladega played a major part in Martin once again playing the bridesmaid with his fifth career runner-up finish at season’s end.
Above all else, Martin has commanded universal respect in a culture where adulation is hard won. It’s not hard to see where the former dirt tracker from down south influenced former teammates Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, and Dale Earnhardt Jr.- just to name a few. When Martin was brought on board to substitute for Tony Stewart last season, a part of his purpose was to pass along knowledge to NASCAR neophyte Danica Patrick. Martin will continue with Stewart-Haas as consultant, and there’s no guarantees he won’t be needed to keep Smoke’s seat warm while Stewart recovers from a serious leg injury.
Sooner or later, a competitor has to hang it up. It’s hard to see such a respected driver depart without that elusive championship. Sometimes, a Hollywood ending just isn’t a part of the plan. Nonetheless, those who know what they’re looking at on the race track know that Mark Martin is one of the great ones, and easily deserving of a place in NASCAR’s Hall Of Fame on his first ballot.
Thanks for the memories Mark Martin, you will be missed. Enjoy whatever life holds in store next.