Opinion: Where Did the Time Go?

Mark Martin

Martin will make his 882nd career NASCAR Sprint Cup start Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, but will it be his last? (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the hardest parts about watching sports is to see athletes grow old.  It’s even more difficult when you’ve watched them since early in their career because when they move on, it’s a reminder of how much we have aged.

NASCAR fans who have followed the sport within the past quarter-century have never seen a Sprint Cup season without Mark Martin.  He competed before Jeff Gordon arrived and races as Gordon’s temples gray.

Martin even provided Gordon one of his early thrills in stock cars.  During Gordon’s first Daytona test in what is now the Nationwide Series, he drove Martin’s Cup car.  Gordon called family and friends afterward, telling them, "I drove a Winston Cup car.  I drove Mark Martin’s car."

The 54-year-old Martin connects the sport to its past.  Richard Petty won when Martin made his Cup debut in April 1981 at North Wilkesboro.  Bobby Allison finished second.  Richard Childress ran that race as did Tim Richmond.  Fourteen of the 43 starters in last weekend’s race at Phoenix weren’t born before Martin’s series debut.

Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, though, could be Martin’s last NASCAR Sprint Cup race.  Of course, many doubt this.  They recall the 2005 "Salute to You"’ season.  Martin will tell you he did not say retirement then.  He does not say it now.  He only says that he doesn’t have a ride for next year.

And he’s OK with that, saying he’s "100 percent comfortable and ready"’ to not race if that’s the case.

"I squeezed all the good out of it," Martin said of his career.  "I’m not having to quit before I’m ready."

Are we ready?

Former champion Bobby Labonte is uncertain what he’ll do next year and Jeff Burton seems headed for a limited schedule before a possible move to the TV booth.  We have watched them, along with Martin, for years.  To think those days could be nearing an end makes one wonder where the time went.

"You look at life, I'm sure you all have heard that old song, 'Don't blink, 100 years goes by fast,' " Childress said.

Looking back on Martin’s career, it’s not the victories that stand out as much as other moments that defined him.

He broke his left wrist, fractured a bone below his left knee and broke a rib in a crash in practice at Daytona in 1999.  Martin didn’t miss a race.  A little more than a week later, a crew member lifted him and eased Martin into his car at New Hampshire.  Martin finished sixth.

That came a year after Martin had his best season in NASCAR, scoring seven wins and 26 top-10 finishes in 33 starts.  Only problem was that Gordon had one of the best seasons in the sport’s modern era, winning 13 races and recording 28 top-10 finishes to claim the championship.

That’s how it was for Martin.  Despite his 40 Cup victories and five IROC titles, he might be remembered more for his grit.  Maybe that’s because he finished second in the points five times and never won the Daytona 500 - losing in 2007 in one of the sport’s closest finishes.  Or maybe that’s because toughness was the most overriding feature of this 125-pound racer.

One of the images of Martin that remain with me was his walk before he had back surgery.  Years of racing and accidents turned him into the crooked man.  When he walked, he was bent at angles that seemed unnatural and painful to watch.

His gait is fine these days, his body strong from strenuous workouts and his mind sharp.

Martin can still drive and will - he’ll test for Tony Stewart’s team in the pre-season as Stewart recovers from the broken leg.  Martin may drive in other tests for the team during the season.  While plans often change, Martin does not anticipate racing.

"I’ve got 40 years invested in this sport and I’ve had tunnel vision the whole 40 years," he said.  "I won’t be at every race, but I’ll be at races and I’ll still be involved in the sport.  The plus side is when I do have contact with (fans), I believe I will have that extra moment for an autograph.  I think they can find some silver lining in the change because my life is going to change and it’s going to open a new chapter."

Before he moves ahead, he looks back.

"At one time, I ran pretty good – and that’s beyond a dream for just a little kid from Arkansas that went to Daytona and was awestruck," Martin said.  "I never dreamed I’d have the opportunity to come within three feet of winning that race or a chance to race with Richard Petty and David Pearson and Cale Yarborough and Benny Parsons and all those greats, Bobby Allison and Darrell Waltrip, collect a little bit of hardware along the way and a lot of friends.  That’s what’s important, the friends and the experiences."

Still, it seems hard to believe his racing could soon be over.  Where did the time go?

The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Motor Racing Network.

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