A tribute to the best who never won a title
By Taylor Goins
January 22, 2016
CHARLOTTE, N.C.—The NFL has Dan Marino and Jim Kelly. The NBA has Karl Malone and Charles Barkley. The MLB has Ted Williams. NASCAR has Mark Martin.
Every sport has their legends who were never able to cap off their incredible careers with a title. But for Mark Martin, his legacy exceeded the measures that any championship could provide. Martin is a perfect ambassador for the sport of auto racing in every sense of the word and his induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame as part of the 2017 class proves what everyone has known all along: you don't have to be a champion to be a legend.
Martin, named one of NASCAR's 50 Greatest Drivers in 1998, achieved tremendous success in NASCAR's top level of competition. The Batesville, AR native notched 40 wins, which is good enough for 17th place on NASCAR's all-time ledger. By comparison, there have been 31 champions of NASCAR's premier series. This is not to say that wins necessarily hold more importance than championships or that Martin should be placed "above" those championship-holding drivers with less wins, but it does prove that Martin belongs in the conversation when it comes to the sport's greats.
Statistically speaking, Martin can hold his own when compared to anyone in NASCAR's rich history. During his career, which spanned over four decades, Martin won 96 races across NASCAR's three national series (seventh all-time) and also posted 61 runner-up finishes (sixth all-time) and 56 pole awards (seventh all-time). Martin raced in an extremely competitive era of NASCAR and traded wins with legends like Earnhardt, Elliott and Wallace weekly, coming out on top a good amount of the time. However, one cannot measure true greatness simply by counting statistics and adding wins and Top 5's. Martin left his mark on NASCAR by being an inspiration to both his fans and competitors.
Some do not know of Martin's struggles during the early portion of his career, but the road to the Hall of Fame was not always smooth and well-paved for him. Beginning his Cup career in 1982, Martin experienced a surge of early success and thought he was on top of the world. In a flash, however, sponsorship dollars dried up and problems on the track ensued. Midway through the 1983 season, the racing world came completely crashing down on Martin and he was fired from his ride. In the depths of this difficulty, Martin turned to alcohol and it very nearly cost him his career. Fortunately, Martin, who does nothing halfway, was able to refocus his obsession and doggedly tackle the challenge of recovery.
A long-standing partnership with Jack Roush was born in 1988 (also the year of Martin's last drink) and he made the most of his second chance. On the track and off, Martin made a complete 180. He became fully focused on being the best driver he could be, and that included implementing a fitness regimen that would rival the program of any world-class athlete. Martin's career skyrocketed and he rattled off a series of impressive seasons, finishing second in the standings to Dale Earnhardt in 1990 and riding this surge of momentum through the subsequent decade. He finished eighth or better in the Cup standings for 12 consecutive seasons and had other close calls at a title, finishing runner-up again in 1994, 1998 and 2002.
The year 2006 was one of transition for Mark Martin as he ceased competing in NASCAR full-time. For any other driver approaching 50, this would signal the end of their career. Mark Martin is not any other driver, though. His aggressive fitness regime and unmatched work ethic paid off exponentially for him, and he returned to full-time competition better than ever. This remarkable renaissance was unprecedented, and Martin capped off a tremendous career with one last Cinderella-esque run at a title in 2009 before finishing runner-up once more.
It is no surprise that Martin's five victories over the age of 50 are second-best all time, because Martin fits the definition of "never giving up" to a "T." For a driver who has accomplished so much, Martin's greatest accomplishments may rest in his remarkable grit, dedication and commitment.
Yes, Mark Martin never won a NASCAR points championship. There is zero doubt, though, that his 40 wins on the track stack up with almost anyone who has stepped behind the wheel of a Cup car, and his great strength off the track combine to make him a true champion. The NASCAR community should be very proud to finally be able to call Mark Martin a hall-of-famer.
DISCLAIMER: Opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.