Proud to ride shotgun with Martin


If I could pick a pilot to fly with, it would be Sully.

If Chesley Sullenberger can land a passenger jet on water, then he can take me anywhere in the wild blue.

Even if he's 58.

I like guys in their 50s -- they have experience, are not likely to take chances, and don't make me look like their father or grandfather.

That's one reason I opted to ride with 50-year-old Mark Martin on Thursday during the NASCAR Victory Lap procession on the Strip. He's the Sully of motor sports. He's also a licensed jet pilot, so I'd probably fly with him too.

No disrespect to the other 11 Sprint Cup drivers who cruised before big crowds down Las Vegas Boulevard South, but it was impossible to predict how they might handle a race car on city thoroughfares.

Jimmie Johnson has that golf-cart incident in his past, Tony Stewart and Juan Pablo Montoya have a festering on-track feud, and Kurt Busch likes to drive backward on his victory laps. Going backward could make me nauseous.

Riding with Martin was a safe choice -- and a way for me to salute him for his great years in the Sprint Cup series. He's six years younger than I am, making him the young 'un in his No. 5 Chevy.

Martin needs a reprieve from his label as NASCAR's "old man," especially after Wednesday's roast of Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in its inaugural Chasers for Charity Fanfest, which raised about $50,000 for Speedway Children's Charities.

Martin and 11 other Cup drivers were the targets of barbs from comedian and emcee Kevin Burke, who focused on Martin's age:

"I'm not saying Mark Martin is old, but the pole winner in his first race was Ben-Hur. ..."

"Mark is so old the tires on his first race car were made of wood."

Martin is in better shape than most people half his age or younger but who look twice as old ... such as Burke.

Martin took the jabs in stride, but the last thing he'd ever want to do is make fun of a compadre, especially a teammate.

The Arkansas native and longtime resident of Port Orange, Fla., nearly stopped teammate Johnson's run to history as the series' first winner of four consecutive championships.

After two seasons of part-time Cup racing, Martin was the series runner-up this year, just as he was in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

"It was such an incredible achievement to just have a chance," said Martin, who has 39 Cup victories, including five this year and the first Las Vegas race in 1998.

In Thursday's Victory Lap he was able to finish the year with an unofficial victory.

We were following Johnson down the Strip and waited just south of Spring Mountain Road while the champ lit up the intersection with smoky celebratory donuts.

It's something Martin never does after winning a race.

"I've built too many race cars and have too much respect to abuse them," he said. "But it makes good TV."

Within a minute of spinning and sliding, Johnson's car stopped abruptly and he climbed out. The car apparently broke an axle. A tow truck was summoned and Johnson finished the 4-mile lap riding on the trunk of the pace car.

"Mark, we won!" I yelled as we passed Johnson's leaking car.

Of course, Martin laughed.

No one deserves to be a Cup champion more than Martin. He should be the role model for all racers of all ages.

In the minds of his fans he has been a champion for many years. All that's missing is the big trophy, but he's not done racing yet.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at jwolf@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0247.

 

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