Old-school Martin teaches rest of NASCAR a lesson

The four most famous words in racing this past week were not "Gentlemen, start your engines."

Of course, that phrase has been challenged regularly in recent years.

For racers, "Thanks to my sponsors" has become more important.

"Beer is how much?" and "Where did we park?" are frequently uttered by fans.

But almost everyone -- from racers to fans -- is unanimous in declaring the four best words in racing this past week were "Mark Martin won again."

That's because Martin is the most popular driver in NASCAR history.

The late Dale Earnhardt or his son, Dale Jr., you say?

Balderdash, I reply.

The Earnhardts had -- and have -- legions of fans, but there are thousands who do not list Earnhardt Nation as home to their racing hearts. The Earnhardts have their detractors.

But I have never heard anyone say anything bad about Mark Martin. Period.

After Martin took the checkered flag Saturday night for the first time in 98 Sprint Cup races, Jimmie Johnson pulled up to the right of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Then Greg Biffle, Martin's former Roush Racing teammate, slowed on his left. Kurt Busch followed Johnson on the right.

Each fellow driver was saluting the 50-year-old's 36th Cup win in his 28th season.

In the winner's circle, runner-up Tony Stewart came over to shake Martin's hand. As did former team owner Jack Roush and former teammate Matt Kenseth. More followed.

"The response from the competitors means much more than the trophy, and that was incredible," Martin said after the race. "Really, really incredible, from all of the crew guys to all of the guys, including Jack Roush, who seemed genuinely happy. And Jack and I are as tight as we have ever been.

"All of the drivers, you know, and the crew. It's just, like I said, I hoped it would happen, but you know, it's asking a lot, man. These things are hard to win.

"So it's cool. It's a cool night."

The scene brought back memories of the gantlet of high-fives and handshakes that the late Dale Earnhardt drove through on pit road after he won his only Daytona 500 in 1998, three years before an accident claimed his life on that track.

Martin led 197 of 312 laps after starting on the pole for the third time in eight races. After a slow start this season with his new team, Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson have moved up to 13th in the standings.

"Alan (said) ... it's hard just to make a car good enough to win, and then it's like 10 times harder to win (a race) on top of that," Martin said.

Martin drove part time the past two seasons for Dale Earnhardt Inc. after leaving Roush Fenway Racing. He seemed content to cut back to running 24 of 36 races with DEI. His son was starting to race, and he wanted to be there for him. But when Matt Martin, 17, scaled back racing to focus more on school, it allowed his father to accept an invitation from Rick Hendrick to become teammates with Jeff Gordon, Johnson and Earnhardt.

Mark Martin is just what NASCAR needs right now. It needs an ambassador who can reinvigorate the generations of fans that pushed the sport into the mainstream but who have felt alienated the past few years by burnouts, blatant product hawking and boorish behavior by many current "me generation" drivers.

The man from Arkansas who lives in Daytona Beach, Fla., is a rebel. He is one of a handful of Cup drivers who do not live around Charlotte, N.C., NASCAR's hub.

He is old school.

After he won Saturday, there was no tire-smoking celebration, no bowing to the crowd or back flip.

"No burnout for me, boys, no burnout for me," he told his crew after winning.

There isn't an ounce of showboat in Mark Martin.

That's cool.

Jeff Wolf's motor sports column is published Friday. He can be reached at 383-0247 or jwolf@reviewjournal.com. Visit Wolf's motor sports blog at lvrj.com/blogs/heavypedal/ throughout the week.