JOLIET, IL - JULY 11:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 CARQUEST/Kellogg's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series LifeLock.com 400 at Chicagoland Speedway on July 11, 2009 in Joliet, Illinois.  (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images)
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Mark Martin, from ‘broken man’ to Hall of Famer

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In 1983, Mark Martin was a “broken man” in every sense of the word.

“Physically and emotionally both … Economically,” Martin said in a teleconference last week.

He was only 24.

At the time, the young man from Batesville, Arkansas, had endured three seasons with 51 starts in NASCAR’s Cup Series with five different owners, including Bud Reeder and Jim Stacy.

But after five starts in ’83, a $50,000 sponsorship deal Martin had fell through when the company failed to pay.

After finishing 33rd at Charlotte Motor Speedway in October, Martin returned to Arkansas. He soon moved to Wisconsin to revive his career in the American Speed Association Series, where he’d won three previous championships.

With his NASCAR dream in shambles, Martin never thought he would return to the Cup level.

“I had no intention of doing anything but making a living short-track racing the rest of my career,” he said.

THE ROAD BACK

21 Jul 1995: Rusty Wallace (left) and Mark Martin look on during the qualifying heats for the NASCAR Diehard 500 at Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Alabama. Mandatory Credit: Jamie Squire /Allsport
Rusty Wallace (left) and Mark Martin in the garage at Talladega Superspeedway in 1995. (Jamie Squire /Allsport)

The rest of Martin’s career lasted 30 years.

Within three years, Martin was on his way to his fourth ASA title. That’s when NASCAR came calling in the form of a ride in the Busch Series (now Xfinity).

“I had an offer to go race the Busch Series that had potential to be a better financial situation than what I was in ASA,” he said. “That really mattered to me at the time because I was just two-and-a-half years into going from a bachelor to a married man with four kids. It did make a difference.”

Martin returned to NASCAR in 1987 driving the No. 31 Fat Boys Bar-B-Q Ford for Bruce Lawmaster.

But Martin, then 28, still didn’t anticipate rising to the Cup level, seeing the Busch ride as “a step up from a lateral move.”

Nine races into the season, Martin claimed his first NASCAR win in the Budweiser 200 at Dover International Speedway. Two races later, he won from the pole at Orange County Speedway in Rougemont, North Carolina.

He had people’s attention.

“The phones starting ringing for Cup,” said Martin, who won three times and finished eighth in the standings.

One person calling was Jack Roush, who had been pointed in Martin’s direction by Bobby Allison. But before Roush would take chance on the resurging driver, Martin had to do one thing. He had to stop drinking.

During his first NASCAR stint, Martin had started down a beer-fueled path in part to peer pressure.

“Everybody always picked on me and teased me because I drank so little,” Martin said in the 1997 Bob Zeller book “Mark Martin: Driven to Race.” “I went from drinking so little I couldn’t even keep from being teased about it, to where I almost enjoyed it a little bit, to having some fun once in awhile like a normal drinker does, to drinking in excess.”

Alcohol became a bigger issue for Martin in his three years away from NASCAR, just as it had for his father, Julian Martin, before he became sober in the mid-1980s.

“Genetically speaking, a son of an alcoholic is five times the risk of becoming one than not,” Martin told ESPN in 2009. “My dad had problems all through my childhood. I said I would never be like that.

“At some point, I had to look at myself and say, ‘Either I am like that or I’m not going to be like that.’ That’s a hard thing.”

Though Roush said Martin’s problem “did manifest itself “ in their first year together, Martin’s last drink came in 1988 when his sponsor was, of all things, Stroh’s Light beer. It was still Martin’s sponsor in 1989 when he won his first Cup race, at Rockingham Speedway.

Instead of the bottle, Martin refocused his energy on his physical fitness. The pursuit helped prolong his career well into the 21st Century after most of his peers of the 1980s and 1990s had disappeared from the circuit.

“With my time freed up once I got with Jack, I had the opportunity to gain an advantage,” Martin said last week. “If nobody else was doing it and I was, it’s a clear opportunity to gain an advantage on the competition. Just like the guys working on the cars were staying nights and gave everything that they could give, I viewed it as an opportunity to do the same thing. To give more than the competition. Basically a lot of the success that I had throughout my early years was to outworking the competition.”

By the end of his career, at 54, Martin was one of the most physically fit and respected drivers in the garage.

CROWN JEWEL

CONCORD, NC - MAY 21: Mark Martin, driver of the #6 Viagra Ford, celebrates winning the NASCAR Nextel Cup All-Star Challenge at Lowe's Motor Speedway on May 21, 2005 in Concord, North Carolina. (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)
Mark Martin celebrates his win in the 2005 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, his second win in the event. (Photo by Craig Jones/Getty Images)

What Martin accomplished in the three decades between his Wisconsin exile and his 882nd and final start in 2013 has led to his induction to the NASCAR Hall of Fame at 8 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN.

As part of the Hall’s eighth class, Martin will be inducted with team owners Richard Childress and Rick Hendrick, driver Benny Parsons and early NASCAR team owner Raymond Parks.

“I don’t know how to put it, it’s the last big deal or the big win,” Martin said. “It is the crown jewel of my career for sure.”

Martin has 40 wins the Cup Series, 49 in the Xfinity Series and five runner-up finishes in the Cup standings. But Martin hasn’t quite come to terms with having his name and career immortalized alongside fellow legends of the sport.

“Don’t forget the people in that Hall of Fame are my heroes,” Martin said. “The founders of the sport. The real men that did it with their bare hands, and I’m a little bit uncomfortable going in there to be honest with you, because I don’t feel like I belong in that kind of company.”

The fact that Martin never won a championship is not an issue for him, at least not anymore.

“(It) robbed me of an enormous amount of joy,” Martins said of past regrets. “Something that I let go of in 2006. Refused to allow it to rob me of joy. I have a lot to be thankful for. And a lot to be grateful for. And I am proud of what I accomplished with my career, and I’m not sour about the things I didn’t accomplish.

Martin’s lack of a title doesn’t diminish his career to Clint Bowyer, who was a teammate of Martin’s at Michael Waltrip Racing from 2012-13.

“Mark Martin, that guy is everything,” Bowyer said earlier this week. “He’s such a humble champion. I know he never was a champion, but he is a damn champion. He is a champion in every sense of the word. He’s represented this sport for so many years, so professional and so perfect as a race car driver. I’m glad to see him in there.”

Among Martin’s accomplishments are wins in two Southern 500s, a Coke 600 and two All-Star Races. But his greatest pride isn’t in any single race, trophy or moment. It’s in the totality of what he accomplished with his second chance.

“Fell on my face and had to go home and start my career all over again,” Martin said. “So I would say the perseverance, if you want to sum it up in one word.”

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Starting lineups for the Can-Am Duel qualifying races

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Daytona 500 pole-winner Chase Elliott will lead the field to the green flag in the first of two Can-Am Duel qualifying races Thursday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who secured the No. 2 starting spot for the Daytona 500, will lead the field to the green in the second of the qualifying races.

Those races will set the rest of the Daytona 500 starting lineup.

Click here for Daytona Duel 1 starting lineup

Click here for Daytona Duel 2 starting lineup

With 36 spots guaranteed to charter teams, four teams are vying for the final two spots — Brendan Gaughan and Elliott Sadler already secured two of the four spots for non-chartered teams in qualifying Sunday.

Those seeking to race their way into the Daytona 500 are Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, DJ Kennington and Timmy Hill.

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Where Are They Now? 1970 Daytona 500 winner Pete Hamilton

pete_hamilton_with_his_petty_enterprises_1970_plymouth_superbird
Photo courtesy Daytona International Speedway
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It’s been 47 years but Pete Hamilton vividly remembers February 22, 1970 – the greatest day of his racing career – as if it was yesterday.

“To tell you the truth, I don’t know if I necessarily expected anything grand to happen that day,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

Having signed just weeks earlier to run an abbreviated 16-race schedule for Petty Enterprises, the Massachusetts native found himself in the 12th edition of the Daytona 500, driving the No. 40 Plymouth Superbird with its renowned high rear spoiler.

While the pressure of driving for team owners Lee and Richard Petty and in the “Great American Race” may have made other drivers nervous, such was not the case for Hamilton.

pete-hamilton-daytona-beach-journal
Photo courtesy Daytona Beach Morning Journal

In just the second Daytona 500 of his career (he finished 44th the year before), Hamilton was cool, calm and collected.

And it was those same attributes that led Hamilton to win NASCAR’s biggest race, beating the best of the best, including Petty, A.J. Foyt, Buddy Baker, Bobby Allison and David Pearson.

When Richard Petty’s engine expired just seven laps into the 500, Hamilton became the standard bearer for Petty Enterprises and he did not disappoint.

Having qualified ninth, Hamilton ran a patient and methodical race, slowly working his way up through the field. He led two times for four laps along the way until he got into a late-race battle with future NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson.

Pearson had dominated the race, leading 82 laps across five different points, including laps 176-191. But Pearson and his Holman-Moody Ford could not hold off Hamilton, who led the final nine laps en route to victory lane.

“We had ran fast, and I think we ran a little faster than Richard, but I knew that I had a lot to learn,” Hamilton told NASCAR Talk.

“By about three-quarters of the race, we were in third place, and then I passed Bobby Allison and got behind David Pearson and was able to pass him and take the lead. That was pretty damn thrilling for this Yankee boy.

“The last 20 laps or so, David and I fought our hearts out, slipping and sliding. We didn’t beat on each other, but we came damn close, and I was fortunate enough to get the best of that deal.”

The 27-year-old Hamilton, with a winning speed of 149.601 mph, beat Pearson by three car lengths, the only two drivers to finish on the lead lap. It was the fourth time Petty Enterprises had won the “Great American Race” in its 12-year history at that point (it would eventually win the 500 nine times, including seven by Richard Petty).

Remember, this was 1970, so there was no radio communication between teams and drivers. Even though he was the first to take the checkered flag, Hamilton wasn’t completely sure he had won.

So he did something unique in Daytona 500 annals:

“When I took the checkered flag, I made a decision at that point that I wasn’t going to let off. I was going to drive an extra lap just to make damned sure that I was the one in front,” Hamilton said with a laugh.

“That lap after the end of the race, I still was running wide open all the way around. Finally, when I got into turns 3 and 4, I began to slow down. It was a pretty thrilling thing.

“When I got into victory circle I remember I couldn’t stop smiling. Maurice Petty was my crew chief. We had a big old hug and a big old happy time, along with all the guys that had worked on the car.”

The 1970 season would go on to be the best of Hamilton’s NASCAR Grand National career. He also won both races at Talladega that season, and won the 1971 Daytona 500 qualifying race.

All told, Hamilton made 64 Grand National starts, won four races, and earned 26 top-five and 33 top-10 finishes plus three poles.

He retired as a driver after the 1973 season and began building race car chassis. He also built a seven-building warehouse and office complex in suburban Atlanta that he still owns today.

Former champion Darrell Waltrip (seen talking on tv screen) addresses a gathering of Daytona 500 winners in 2005 including Pete Hamilton (left) and Bobby Allison. (Photo by Getty Images).

Now 74, Hamilton is retired and splits his time between Georgia and New England. While he hasn’t attended a NASCAR race since the 50th Daytona 500 in 2008, he said “I’m still an avid NASCAR fan. I watch the majority of the races on TV.”

Then he added with a laugh, “My wife tells me I watch the start of the race, sleep through the middle and then wake up for the end. I don’t know how the hell I wake up for the end, but I manage to see the end of most of the races. She winds up watching most of the race instead of my sorry ass.”

Hamilton will be watching the 59th Daytona 500 this Sunday, but don’t be surprised if his mind goes back 47 years at some point during the day.

“I have a very vivid memory of racing that day with guys like Buddy Baker, Charlie Glotzbach, Bobby and Donnie Allison, and David Pearson,” he said. “It makes you feel real good and proud of what we accomplished together.

“It wasn’t a ‘me’ thing, it was a ‘we’ thing. It took everybody that was on the car to make the thing really go. I was just the driver, the pilot.”

Let us know who you would like to hear about from the past and email Jerry Bonkowski at jerry.bonkowski@Nbcuni.com with your suggestion.

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Fans welcome Dale Earnhardt Jr. back to Daytona with open arms and high spirits

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid during qualifying for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series 59th Annual DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – With due respect to Chase Elliott for winning the Daytona 500 pole position, he wasn’t the main attraction for the few dozen fans gathered in victory lane after qualifying.

“Let’s go Junior! Whoo!”

“Go Dale!”

“Junebug!”

Finally a voice cut through the din with authority.

“Welcome back!”

Earnhardt, standing beside Elliott while posing for photos between their Chevrolets, lifted his Mountain Dew in tribute as the throngs heartily cheered.

“I had a real good time in the (TV) booth and just to be able to be at the track and be a part of it one way or another,” said Earnhardt, who helped call The Clash race on FS1 (Alex Bowman finished third in his No. 88 Chevrolet) before qualifying second Sunday in his official return to NASCAR. “It feels great. The fans have been super supportive throughout the whole process. I know there are a lot of folks happy to see us all back at the track. The team’s really geared up.

“It’s good to come out of here with a good result today, and we’ll try to build on that. It doesn’t guarantee anything going forward, but it certainly shows we’ve got speed in a straight line.”

After missing the second half of the 2016 season while recovering from a concussion, Earnhardt will return to racing Thursday night in the second Duel qualifying race at Daytona International Speedway.

Though he’s been in the car since Saturday, the 14-time most popular driver had made only single-car runs to prepare for qualifying.

Earnhardt admitted he is “antsy to get in the draft and get in some pack racing” when cars return to the track Thursday with a practice at noon.

“I don’t know how much (drafting) we’ll get to do on Thursday aside from before the qualifying race,” he said. “But certainly I’m going to get in that qualifying race and mix it up with them guys. Hopefully we’ll have a good run.

“It’s a great little race car. Our backup car is great, too. You’ve got to kind of think about that backup car these days because there’s the potential to get your car tore up before you ever get it to the 500. We’ve got two great race cars and feel good about our opportunity come Sunday.

“We just hope we can get some time to work on our car in the draft and understand where the balance is (and) just whether we got the car handling where we want it.”

After winning the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014, Earnhardt is anxious to punctuate his return with another victory. He admitted to being so competitive about his comeback that he was a tad disappointed to be knocked off the pole by his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.

“Yeah, that’s the funny thing about racing is you realize being out of the car how much you might have took it for granted and then you just want to get back in,” he said. “And then when you get back in, you just want to win. Then when you get real close, you’re disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this is awesome.

“To be back in the car and be running well and have such a good day and to see (Elliott) do so well … it means a lot.”

Long: Even in celebration, a hint of concern hangs over Hendrick Motorsports

DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 19:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, is involved in an on-track incident during the weather delayed Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Advance Auto Parts Clash at Daytona International Speedway on February 19, 2017 in Daytona Beach, Florida.  (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)
Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — On a day when Hendrick Motorsports swept the Daytona 500 front row, the main topic was not how fast its cars were, but if they could make it 500 miles without suddenly darting out of control.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Chase Elliott spun by themselves off Turn 4 in the Daytona 500, and Earnhardt did the same thing at Talladega a few months later.

Sunday, seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson’s blue-and-white Chevrolet snapped loose and turned its nose into the side of Kurt Busch’s car 17 laps into the Clash.

“It’s something I’m very concerned about and to see it again today adds to that anxiety a little bit,’’ Earnhardt said during the FS1 broadcast of the Clash.

Johnson was perplexed. He called his Turn 4 incident “bizarre,” saying his car was fine elsewhere on the track.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, sought to quell any fears by downplaying Johnson’s incident.

“I feel it’s something that we can combat fairly easily,’’ Knaus told NBC Sports. “I’m not too concerned at all.

“I wouldn’t say it’s anything with Hendrick specifically.’’

Although Knaus is known as one of the mentally strongest people in the garage, his Jedi mind tricks couldn’t calm some of his teammates.

Earnhardt later said that his team was looking over notes from previous years to explain the spate of spins. Pole-winning crew chief Alan Gustafson admits he’s concerned after Elliott had spun in last year’s race.

What is unnerving for some at Hendrick Motorsports is that even with three days of practice before the Daytona 500, they won’t see enough cars on track to reliably ensure the car’s balance is correct.

With the qualifying races in cooler conditions at night, it doesn’t provide as good a gauge, especially with warm temperatures and a slick track forecasted for the Daytona 500.

The best time to prepare for those conditions is to practice during the day, but Earnhardt and Gustafson admit that won’t be helpful because many teams limit how much they run to avoid getting collected in a wreck and having to go to a backup car. Packs will be small.

“If you don’t have 20 cars (practicing together), you’re probably not going to get a great read on what your car is going to do,’’ Gustafson said. “You need to have 20 cars for more than five, six, seven laps at a time.’’

That’s critical because tires are starting to play a more important role. The track’s surface is wearing and that makes handling more important.

Without those large packs in practice, teams will have to rely on simulation and other engineering tools.

Even with those resources, Turn 4 has become the Bermuda Triangle for Hendrick Motorsports, a team which has one victory in the last eight restrictor-plate races.

“That exit of Turn 4 is tough,’’ Elliott told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely easy to get in a bad way and get bound up or get in a bad aero situation up off 4, and the balance is starting to become a factor here again, which is good news I think for the folks who sit up in those bleachers and the people who watch on TV.’’

Johnson and Knaus both speculated that track position played a role in the No. 48 car’s wayward actions. Johnson fell back in the pack before losing control of his car.

“I have to assume it’s relative to the height of the rear spoiler,’’ Johnson said. “When there’s less air and the air is so turbulent back there, the spoiler is so small it’s really easy to get the pressure off it and then the back just rotates around.’’

So what will have to be done?

“We can adjust rear shocks, rear ride height and try to get more pitch in the car in a sense to keep the spoiler up in the air longer,’’ he said.

If it was that easy, there wouldn’t be the concern for some at Hendrick Motorsports even as Elliott celebrated his second consecutive Daytona 500 pole and Earnhardt relished his return by starting next to his teammate.

Of course, those cars had run alone on the track Sunday. It’s when they’re around other cars that raises questions.

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