After driving part time for Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 2007-’08, Mark Martin still had plenty of fire left in the tank.
As a result, team owner Rick Hendrick, who was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017, asked Martin to return to full-time action.
Despite the enticing offer to pilot the No. 5 Chevrolet, Martin remained committed to running a partial Cup Series schedule.
“I actually told him no, twice,” Martin told SPEED SPORT. “He was after me for over a year, to come drive the 5 car. First time he called, I said, ‘I’ll drive it 24 races, but won’t run full time.’ He said he couldn’t do that. Then he called me again later. ‘I want you to come drive that 5 car.’
“I’m like, ‘I’ll do it for 24 races, but I won’t run full time.’”
However, with 11 top-10 finishes in 24 races in 2008, Martin was hungry for victory.
“I got really close a couple times to winning in the 8 car, real close. I was starting to really taste it in my mouth again, what it would feel like to win one more time,” Martin said. “So he (Hendrick) came at me a third time.
“‘Come drive that 5 car,’” Martin said were Hendrick’s words. “I talked it over with Arlene (his wife), and I said, “I just would like to win one more time.’ So we made a deal. He promised me that if I’d run full time in 2009 that I’d get my 24 races in 2010. I didn’t press him if that would still be the 5 car or not.”
Martin moved to Hendrick Motorsports to drive the No. 5 Chevy in 2009. He returned to victory lane at Phoenix Raceway only eight weeks into the season.
Starting from the pole, Martin led a race-high 157 laps to earn his first win with the Hendrick organization, and his first in 97 races.
“It’s one of the most memorable wins of my career,” Martin said. “It was so, so hard for me to describe how euphoric that little time period was of about an hour. From crossing under the checkered flag, to getting to victory lane and experiencing that with Alan Gustafson (crew chief). All those guys were so enthusiastic. They were so excited to have me drive their car.”
The win vaulted Martin on to an exclusive list, becoming only the fourth driver (Harry Gant, Morgan Shepherd, Bobby Allison) age 50 or older to win a Cup Series race.
“It was so humbling and exhilarating. Every time I showed up, every guy on the crew was just so excited. There was so much electricity in the air,” Martin said. “Then, to have Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Jeff Burton, Mike Helton, and just on and on, all these really important people in my life, as far as top-10 most-respected people in the racing industry to come to victory lane and show me respect. I can’t explain it. It just was absolutely euphoric.”
The euphoria continued as Martin won four more races that season, including the historic Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway.
Though, he finished second in the standings, 141 markers behind teammate Jimmie Johnson, Martin’s mind was never on a title.
“I had learned in 2007-’08 doing the limited schedule and not racing for points, how the joy could be back in racing for me,” Martin said. “I wasn’t going to let that joy get away. In other words, I didn’t race for points in 2009. I didn’t take the job to win a championship. I did not give a s— whether I won the championship or not. I just wanted to win a race.
“We won five. The fact that we came down to being in championship contention was a bonus, but it was not on my radar,” Martin said. “That was not what was important to me. I was not going to let that stand in the way of me enjoying the success that we had and the opportunity of a lifetime to work with some of the greatest people in motorsports at that time. It was an incredible race team, an incredible time in my life and I was damn sure not going to let a points tally take any of the joy away from the experience.”
Amid their success, it didn’t take long for Martin and Hendrick to revise their original contract.
“We were winning races, dude. I’m having the friggin’ time of my friggin’ life,” Martin said. “Hey, I’ll do more. Then Rick’s like, ‘We want you to drive this car as long as you’ll drive it.’
“I just was having so much fun in 2009 that I agreed to do 2010 and ’11.”
Two more seasons of full-time racing followed, however Martin’s final victory came at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in the fall of 2009.
Martin scaled back his schedule two more seasons, driving part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing in 2012-’13. At age 54, Martin retired at the end of 2013.
The decision to retire was an easy one for the Batesville, Ark., native, who was an icon in the sport for more than 30 years.
“I still had offers to drive for 2014. It wasn’t one of those deals where I kept hanging on,” Martin said. “I knew for a fact that it was time, and that I was ready to walk. It was like flipping a switch off.
“I don’t race cars, I don’t spin my tires. I don’t drive fast. It’s gone. That, that was in me for 40 years, is not present in me anymore. I just don’t drive race cars anymore. That’s how I am. It was time to flip the switch, and I stepped out of the car and flipped the switch off.”
While Martin transitioned into retirement, the NASCAR Hall of Famer remains immersed in the sport, while enjoying life on the road.
Find out how in part four — tomorrow.Follow @DHoffmanMedia22