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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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Many of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most memorable career moments

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Trying to condense 18 seasons, 603 starts, 26 wins, 149 top-fives, 253 top 10s and 13 poles into one highlight reel is a challenge, indeed.

In light of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement today that he’ll retire at the end of this season as a NASCAR Cup driver, let’s take a walk down memory lane of some of Junior’s most memorable races and accomplishments.

2000 – Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his first career Cup victory at the same site he earned his first Xfinity win a few years earlier: Texas Motor Speedway. He would earn his second career win several weeks later at Richmond.

2000 – Junior earns his first – and only one to date – NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

2001 – In an emotional celebration, Junior wins the Pepsi 400 at Daytona and dedicates his third career Cup win to his father, who was killed less than five months earlier in the season-opening Daytona 500.

2001 – In the first NASCAR race following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins an emotional and stirring MBNA Cal Ripken Jr. 400 at Dover International Speedway.

2001 to 2003 – Junior wins four straight Cup races at Talladega Superspeedway, which would become his most prolific track with six overall wins to date there. Here’s his four wins in a row at ‘Dega:

2001 – EA Sports 500 — Junior wins the race and earns a $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus.

2002 Aaron’s 400

2002 EA Sports 500 — and the final $1 million Winston No Bull 5 bonus

2003 Aaron’s 499

2004 – Junior earns his first of what would be two Daytona 500 victories. “I’m a Daytona 500 champion. I can’t believe it,” Junior said in Victory Lane.

2010 – Earnhardt wins the Subway Jalapeno 250 Xfinity Series race at Daytona. This race was all the more memorable because Junior drove a retro-looking No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing that paid homage to his late father, who was sponsored by Wrangler.

2014 – Earnhardt earns what would prove to be the second and final Daytona 500 win of his career, with now-NBC NASCAR analyst Steve Letarte as his crew chief.

2015 – Earnhardt records his most recent Cup win in the Quicken Loans Race for Heroes 500 at Phoenix Raceway (ceremonially renamed Jeff Gordon Raceway for this race). It was also Earnhardt’s third career win at Phoenix.

 

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Who are the candidates to replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88? Here’s a short list

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With Tuesday’s news that Dale Earnhardt Jr. is leaving NASCAR after the 2017 season, Hendrick Motorsports would seem to have multiple internal and external candidates to fill the ride.

Earnhardt’s No. 88 Chevrolet would be the top-tier opening for 2018. The car is prepared in the same building as the No. 48 of seven-time series champion Jimmie Johnson and is a teammate to Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne. Since taking over the No. 88 in 2008, Earnhardt has made the playoffs in six of nine seasons, notched nine victories and finished top 10 in points three times (he might have again in 2012 if he hadn’t been sidelined for two races by a concussion).

Some of the decision assuredly will depend on sponsorship (in a statement, Nationwide said it fully supported Earnhardt’s decision and would continue its relationship with the 14-time most popular driver beyond 2017), but here are a few names to consider — starting with two already in the Hendrick fold:

William Byron: Signed to a developmental deal with the team last August, he unquestionably is the future of Hendrick Motorsports along with Elliott.

Byron, 19, showed prodigious talent as a rookie in the Camping World Truck Series with a circuit-leading seven victories (he was robbed of the championship because of a mechanical failure while dominating Phoenix). He is only seven races into his Xfinity career but is a solid second in points with five top 10s and two top fives.

There will be questions about whether it would be rushing too much to promote him to Cup in his third full season in a NASCAR national series, but if he’s the eventual solution, why wait to promote him? Kyle Larson was moved into Cup after only a full season of Xfinity, and his development into the 2017 points leader has proved the pitfalls that surrounded Joey Logano’s entry into Cup as an inexperienced teenager can be avoided.

Alex Bowman: He filled in admirably for an injured Earnhardt with three top 10s in 10 races last year (qualifying on pole position at Phoenix and leading 194 laps). Bowman, who turned 24 today, also ran full time in Cup from 2014-15, so he has nearly 81 starts in the premier series as well as five top fives in 50 Xfinity starts.

Still under contract to Hendrick, his yeoman work on the driving simulator has drawn praise from the organization and its drivers.

But the Tuscon, Ariz., native still doesn’t have a resume that is eye-catching as Byron’s, and his upside might be a more difficult sell to sponsors.

Carl Edwards: Since stepping away from NASCAR in a stunning announcement three months ago, Edwards steadfastly has maintained he isn’t retired. While visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway to help rookie replacement Daniel Suarez with his former No. 19 Toyota, Edwards brought his helmet and firesuit just in case.

He seems open to driving in Cup again, though he is remaining coy about it. Asked by NBC Sports if the No. 88 was an opportunity he would consider, Edwards jokingly replied, “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!” (He also added he was happy for Earnhardt, and that it would be a great ride for someone.)

With 28 victories in the Cup series and a megawatt smile and sponsor appeal, Edwards’ name figures to come up whenever there is an opening, even if he seems to be enjoying life on his farm in Columbia, Mo. He also was courted by Hendrick about a decade ago (which Jeff Gordon confirmed in 2011 when Edwards was in the midst of re-upping for the last time with Roush Fenway Racing).

–Any other qualified veteran: Hendrick could decide Byron isn’t ready for the No. 88 yet next season but is the answer for 2019.

Would it make sense to consider putting NBCSN analyst Greg Biffle (who has indicated he still would like to race) or another driver with winning credentials (such as David Ragan or Regan Smith, who has Hendrick and JRM ties) in the No. 88 to keep the seat warm for Byron in 2019?

Given that Hendrick waited a year for Kahne to join its ranks, and Stewart-Haas Racing did the same with Clint Bowyer, it isn’t an implausible scenario.

A look at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s most popular tweets

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s NASCAR racing career has been long and memorable and will end after the 2017 season.

But his social media career has been short, insightful, news breaking and often times hilarious.

After years of dragging his feet, the 14-time most popular driver joined Twitter on Feb. 24, 2014 after his second Daytona 500 and NASCAR hasn’t been the same.

In hindsight, Earnhardt’s social media use has been a captivating look at the twilight of his racing career, which began with arguably one of the biggest wins of his career.

Here’s a look at Earnhardt’s eight most retweeted tweets.

  1. Feb. 24, 2014 – The morning after his second Daytona 500 win, Earnhardt poses with a statue of his late father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., that is outside Daytona International Speedway. It’s been retweeted 26,629 times.

2.  Feb. 24, 2014 – Just after 2:30 a.m. ET, the NASCAR and Twitter world changed forever when Earnhardt posted his first surprise tweet from Victory Lane after winning his second Daytona 500. It was Earnhardt’s first Cup win since the June 2012 Michigan race and only his second Cup win since 2008. It’s been retweeted 20,026 times.

3. Feb. 18, 2015 – Fourteen years after his father was killed in a crash on the last lap of the Daytona 500, Earnhardt acknowledged the anniversary. It has been retweeted 10,788 times.

4. January 19, 2017 – Earnhardt is an unabashed fan of sports outside of NASCAR, including of the NFL’s Washington Redskins and the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets. Earlier this year, Earnhardt couldn’t attend a Hornets’ home game. So he decided to give his tickets to one lucky winner. 7,925 people retweeted his post hoping to win.

5. Feb. 25, 2017 – The day before what would turn out to be his last Daytona 500 start, Earnhardt shared a video that had been posted by the official NASCAR Twitter account. Backed with the song “My Old Man” by the Zac Brown Band, the video is a fond remembrance of his relationship with his father. Roughly 7,600 people shared his sentiment.

6. Dec. 11, 2014 – This tweet takes a little bit more of an explanation. Ten months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt tagged rapper J. Cole in a tweet, mentioning he was “funny” with a hashtag #ShitChangedMyLifeBro. The hashtag is a reference to one of J. Cole’s songs, “Note to Self.” Cole referenced Earnhardt in the song after he saw in an ESPN interview that Earnhardt listened to one of his songs before races. The Twitter interaction led to 7,601 retweets and an ESPN: The Magazine cover story.

7. April 29, 2014 – Two months after joining Twitter, Earnhardt very simply wished his late father a happy birthday. It was retweeted more than 6,800 times.

8. Aug. 10, 2014 – Few personally know the tragedy associated with auto racing more than Dale Earnhardt Jr. On Aug. 9, 2014, sprint car driver Kevin Ward Jr. was killed when a sprint car driven by Tony Stewart struck the 20-year-old. Ward had approached the racing lane on foot following a crash at Canandaigua Motorsports Park in New York. The following morning Earnhardt tweeted his condolences to Ward’s family. It was shared 5,579 times.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Richmond International Raceway

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NASCAR makes its first visit of the year to Richmond International Raceway this weekend as the Cup and Xfinity Series compete on the .75-mile track.

Cup teams will hold the Toyota Owners 400 while Xfinity teams gear up for the ToyotaCares 250.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both races.

Cup Series – Toyota Owners 400

There are 38 cars on the entry list for the Cup race.

Last year, Carl Edwards won this race with a bump-and-run on teammate Kyle Busch on the final turn. Busch had led 78 laps in the race before Edwards, who led 151 laps, powered his way to the victory.

Denny Hamlin won the fall race from the pole after leading 189 laps.

Click here for the full entry list.

Xfinity Series – ToyotaCares 250

Five Cup drivers are among the 42 cars entered into the race, including: Ty Dillon, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson.

The race is the third Dash 4 Cash race of the year, meaning Cup drivers with five years or more experience are not eligible to compete in the race.

Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won this race after leading 128 of 149 laps. Kyle Busch won the fall race after leading 197 of 250 laps.

Click here for the entry list.