(Note: This is the third in a five-part series of features detailing the careers of each of the five inductees for the NASCAR Hall of Fame Class of 2017. The inductees, who will be officially enshrined on Jan. 20 (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), are Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Mark Martin, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons. )
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – To the surprise of no one, Mark Martin continued to win races at the highest level well past an age when most competitors have hung up their helmets.
With five victories past the age of 50, Martin also came within one standings position of winning the 2009 premier series championship.
The phrase ‘age is just a number’ may be cliché – but it certainly applied to the diminutive Martin, whose fitness regimen of heavy weight lifting and healthy eating became legend and ultimately sent his fellow competitors flocking to gyms and nutritionists.
In short, Martin lived his life like a man half his age – and drove like it as well.
“I told the guys I don’t have any problem keeping up with a 25-year-old,” he told The Associated Press in April 2009 after becoming the third-oldest winner in NASCAR premier series history at Phoenix International Raceway. “I feel really good.”
Only one driver – Harry Gant – won more races after his 50th birthday. Martin polished off a 40-victory resume during a magical year driving for Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, adding to his 35 wins at Roush Fenway Raceway. That’s the most wins by a competitor without a series championship.
And although Martin never won the ultimate prize, the now 58-year-old Martin finished as runner up a record-matching five times.
Martin’s illustrious career spanned four decades – 1981 through 2013 – and will be celebrated with his Jan. 20 induction into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN). His fellow inductees in the Hall’s Class of 2017 are Richard Childress, Rick Hendrick, Raymond Parks and Benny Parsons.
Martin’s racing career began as a teenager, competing on dirt tracks in Arkansas then moving to asphalt. Larry Shaw, a top competitor, car builder and fellow Batesville resident, predicted Martin would be a success – and not just on area tracks.
“He did not want to settle for second and he was really dedicated to winning races,” said Shaw.
Martin joined the American Speed Association, a top Midwest late model circuit where he raced against NASCAR Hall of Famer Bobby Allison, Dick Trickle, Jim Sauter and Joe Shear. He won 22 races and four championships, the last in 1986 that followed an abortive attempt to crack NASCAR’s premier series.
He fielded his own car in 1981, finishing third at Martinsville and winning poles at Nashville and Richmond, and was runner up to rookie of the year Geoff Bodine the following year. Between 1981 and 1987, Martin drove for eight different owners with little success.
That changed dramatically when Martin signed to drive Jack Roush’s Fords. Martin won his first race in October 1989 at Rockingham, North Carolina, and finished third in series points – marking the first of 12 consecutive seasons of eighth or better in the championship.
Martin battled NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt down to the final race of the 1990 season, ultimately losing the title by 26 points. Martin’s other runner-up finishes came in 1994 (to Earnhardt), 1998 (to (Jeff Gordon), 2002 (to Tony Stewart) and 2009 (to Jimmie Johnson).
Leaving Roush Fenway Racing after the 2006 season, Martin spent the following two years competing part-time prior to joining Rick Hendrick’s team in 2009. His Phoenix victory broke a 97-race winless drought but a Chase victory to begin the Chase proved to be Martin’s last trip to Victory Lane.
Ultimately, Martin himself knew when his time was up.
“The young guys were getting better, I was heading the other way and so it wasn’t fun anymore because I didn’t meet my personal expectations,” he said after stepping away after the 2013 season. “So if it’s not fun, stop. And that’s why it was actually easy for me to quit.
“On a bluesy day, finishing second those times can aggravate you. But normally, I just think, ‘Yeah but look at all the great things I got to do and the great people I got to work with.’”
Martin won races in 15 seasons on 20 different tracks along with 56 poles. Absent from the list is Daytona International Speedway and its Daytona 500, a race he lost to Kevin Harvick by 0.020 second in 2007. Martin also won the All-Star Race twice.
Martin won 49 times in the NASCAR XFINITY Series holding the record for most victories for 14 seasons. He also won seven NASCAR Camping World Truck Series events giving Martin 96 victories across NASCAR’s three national series, ranking seventh all time.
Martin owns a family of automobile dealerships in Arkansas. He was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 2015.