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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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NASCAR America: Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones get a feel of how Olympians train (video)

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NASCAR drivers talk almost continuously about how they have to be in top physical condition to endure sometimes often very difficult conditions while on a racetrack and behind the wheel.

One only needs to look at seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson to see the rewards of being fit.

But going to one of the Olympic training centers in the U.S. is a whole other thing, something that separates folks who think they’re fit from those that really are.

Ask Toyota drivers like Martin Truex Jr., Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones, who recently participated in a two-day training session at an Olympic training facility.

We wouldn’t be surprised if they’re still nursing sore muscles, given the workouts they endured – and which gave them new appreciation for what many Olympians must go through to be the best.

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NASCAR America: Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch ready for Daytona fireworks (video)

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NASCAR’s summer classic, the Coke Zero 400, celebrates this country’s independence, its military heroes and concludes with a great fireworks show.

But as Clint Bowyer and this year’s Daytona 500 winner, Kurt Busch, will vouch for, there’s also a lot of fireworks during the race, as the 2.5-mile, high-banked tri-oval can be one of the most difficult and intimidating places to race upon.

If a driver isn’t dodging fellow drivers, he or she is trying to stay in the draft to gain forward movement and momentum. Unfortunately, a lot of times when dodging and draft collide, so too do a lot of cars and drivers, as well.

It may not be the Daytona 500, but winning at Daytona in July is still a big prize that everyone wants to win. And don’t forget, because it’s Daytona, it’s also a place to be careful at because of the danger that can pop up at any moment.

Find out why by clicking on the above video.

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NASCAR America: Steve Letarte kicks off weekly feature honoring pit crews (video)

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They’re the unsung heroes of NASCAR, the guys who typically don’t get enough praise when things go right, and then oftentimes have the finger of blame pointed at them when things go wrong.

We’re talking about one of the most important jobs in NASCAR: pit crew member.

Starting with Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, a guy who knows a lot about pit crews – former crew chief turned NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte – kicked off a feature that will run each week for the 20 remaining weeks of the season.

Letarte’s series will spotlight the importance of pit crews, and he’ll also choose pit crew all-stars to recognize their contributions to the sport and their perseverance on pit road.

This week’s first bunch of pit crew all-stars are Caleb Hurd, gasman for Denny Hamlin; Jeff Zarella, tire specialist for Kurt Busch and Frank Mathalia, engine tuner for Austin Dillon.

Give them and their peers some love and check out the above video.

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr. wants one final Daytona win for himself and his father (video)

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Daytona International Speedway has been a bittersweet place for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

It’s been the place of his biggest NASCAR Cup career wins, including the Daytona 500 in 2004 and 2014.

But it’s also the same place where he lost his father  in a last-lap wreck in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Now, Earnhardt returns to the “World Center of Speed” for what will be the final time in his 18-year NASCAR Cup career.

On Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Earnhardt reflected upon all the good and bad Daytona has meant to him and his family.

On his first time back to Daytona after his father’s death nearly five months earlier: “Once we got to Daytona, we drove by the racetrack, pulled in, parked in Turn 3, got out and walked around. The track was empty, quiet and I’d never been to the crash site. That’s where dad, in my mind, lost his life. That was where we all remember him last.”

Returning to Daytona for the first time after his father’s death there: “I felt like that was a place I wanted to visit. And every time I go to Daytona, even today, I go around that racetrack, I look at that spot, I look at that knoll of grass before the exit of Turn 4. I wanted to go there and see how I felt and see what kind of emotions happened so that I could get whatever was going to be out of the way.

“I told myself what I was going through is the same sadness that some guy somewhere in the Midwest is dealing with right now. Who am I to go on and on about how hard it was, because somebody, somewhere right now is dealing with a loss.”

How he wishes his father was still here to see the man and driver he’s become: “I’d have loved it if he’d stuck around a lot longer, but that’s not the way it was supposed to be. And we figured out how to make it (when he won the 2001 Coke Zero 400 in his father’s honor).”

On wanting to win one last time at Daytona in a Cup car this Saturday night: “I’d love to win at Daytona and add another win to the Earnhardt column. Every time I win there, I think it’s another win for me and dad because his success there stretches far beyond the Daytona 400 and July 400. But any time I win there, that’s one more stake in the ground that we claim this track as a place we dominate.”

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