Fridays fun again for part-timer Mark Martin

Mark Martin's string of 621 consecutive racing weekends came to a halt last month at Bristol Motor Speedway. Does he regret his decision not to race? Not a chance, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: April 12, 2007, 12:24 PM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

For several years, the old "Thank God It's Friday" adage did not apply to Mark Martin.

Come Friday, he agonized from the sun's emergence through his final qualifying circuit. It just wasn't fun anymore.

Mark Martin
Doug Benc/Getty ImagesLess seat time for Mark Martin means more one-on-one time with 15-year-old son Matt.

"I wouldn't call it dreadful, but it's definitely the highest pressure," Martin said of Fridays in recent years. "I agonized for the past two years [at Roush Racing] about qualifying, because it hadn't seemed to go as well as we'd have wanted.

"In the 6 car we seemed to race better than we were able to qualify. So I did agonize over that some."

Fast forward to March 23, 2007.

It's Friday, Bristol Motor Speedway. As his contemporaries strolled from their posh motorhomes, up across the pedestrian bridge and through the tunnel that leads to the infield at Thunder Valley, Martin awoke and strolled … to the kitchen.

In Florida.

For the first time in 621 consecutive racing weekends, he wasn't at the track. He had to have missed it, right?

"I felt great, especially Friday morning when I woke up and wasn't faced with a whole lot on my plate," Martin said, that wide smile obvious even through the phone receiver.

"I was supposed to be at the racetrack and I was able to do some other things. I haven't been cruising, now. I've had a fire under me."

He reiterates for clarity. He might not be at the racetrack, but he ain't on the back porch sipping lemonade just yet, either.

"I've still been busy -- probably busier than I've ever been in my career," he continued. "We're still working hard. But I had a pretty clean plate on Friday of Bristol. I woke up really, really relaxed.

"There's not the pressure of meeting the schedule and having to get qualified and I could have lunch with [my son] Matt. It was a whole different experience. It meant a lot to me. Same thing the following week. Friday was a great day."

Those lunches with his son are especially noteworthy. It's legit QT. And it's a rare commodity when a father gets the opportunity for legit QT with his teenage son.

"If we get in two lunches a week together, that's a really good week," Martin said. "That's where he opens up and we talk. He's 15 years old. He has his own agenda and his own pace."

That quickly takes us back to the frantic schedule.

"Again, this has not been any less hectic pace, '07 has not," Martin said. "I dig, man. That's what I do. This isn't about cruising. I'll cruise when there's nothing left to do. We haven't planned any vacations. But those Fridays, and that Saturday going racing with [my son], was special."

The Martins plan to go racing together once again on the weekend of April 29. So as the Nextel Cup boys strap in to tackle NASCAR's biggest racetrack, Talladega Superspeedway, Friday morning, Mark and Matt Martin will be preparing the trailer to head to the short track the next day.

And the following day, race day, Martin will be watching, just as he was the last two weekends. He watched all practices, qualifying, pre-race shows, races and post-race programming live. And only once did the urge hit him.

It was during the command to start engines at Bristol. There was a camera shot of a driver flipping the ignition switch on his race car. That is a very special moment for a driver, he said. At that moment, all the extraneous, peripheral obligations wash away. Those 150,000 people aren't there.

It's just you, your crew chief and your spotter.

"That is one of the sacred parts of a weekend," Martin said. "When you reach and push those switches up, hospitality is behind you, the drivers' meeting is behind you, the traffic coming in is behind you, qualifying. Now it's down to what you came for.

"And it was weird [to see]. I was like, 'Whoa! This is where it all switches to just me and my buddies.' But when they rolled off, man, it was like watching a Busch race for me. I didn't miss it.

"I'm a race fan first. And it's OK for me to watch. I just don't want to watch permanently. But I did not ever, once, wish I was out there when I was watching Bristol and Martinsville."

Marty,

I saw on "NASCAR Now" where you said NASCAR is happy with the Busch Series. Sure they are. All those Cup drivers are making them money. What's your take on the Busch Series?

-- Jacob Zachary, Des Moines, Iowa

It needs help, Jacob. Not from a competition standpoint, necessarily -- the racing is good -- but in terms of its business model. Right now, Busch Series team owners are struggling to procure sponsorship based solely on the merits of a development-type driver alone.

Busch Series sponsorships have become contingent on Cup driver affiliation. For example, to get Dollar General to sponsor his Busch Series operation, including young drivers Cale Gale and Kertus Davis, Kevin Harvick must make appearances for the company.

"It's very hard to get sponsorship," Harvick said. "If I want to go out and get sponsorship for Cale Gale or Kertus Davis for a full year it would be virtually impossible. You have to take myself or Bobby Labonte or Tony Stewart and give the sponsor something they can market around.

"So many Cup guys are in the Busch Series it makes it hard to have a car you want to run for the championship to go find sponsorship for."

I do think, though, that the Car of Tomorrow could help remedy this situation. The COT should reduce Cup infiltration of the Busch Series. The cars are so different that Cup teams can't learn much from racing Busch cars, and we might finally get to a point that young drivers are getting a shot again.

Harvick agrees.

"The Car of Tomorrow was a big wakeup call for everyone that was running both cars, because they're so different," he said. "I think you're going to see [Cup] guys run less races."

Keeping with the Harvick theme:

Marty,

Does Kevin Harvick plan to own a Nextel Cup team in the future, since he has Truck and Busch teams now?

-- Elaine Bishop, Orlando, Fla.

He doesn't have any such plans in the near future, Elaine. He tells me the current goal is to get his Busch Series operation on par with his Truck Series program. He feels like his Truck Series operation is capable of winning every time it hits the track. His Busch program isn't to that level yet.

"The 33 car has shown they can be competitive and the 77 has shown signs of that, but if you can't consistently win races in the Busch Series there's no reason to go to Cup," Harvick chuckled. "You'll wind up struggling and wish you didn't [go to Cup]."

Marty the Party!!!

After bashing you weeks ago about wearing sneakers with your suit, lo and behold, there you were at Martinsville, scooting by on a Yardman tractor wearing DRESS SHOES! If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes, I never would have believed it!

You looked the part, brother. And I saw you beating the bushes down there in the pits. You had the steely look of a true professional. See what the right footwear can do for you?

-- JB, Columbus, Ohio

Well, I did wear dress shoes, JB, but I think they'll soon be retired. I'm contemplating taking the leap into the racing footwear fashion show that is the Nextel Cup garage. Puma is it. All I know is those dress shoes kill my geriatric back.

And I don't recall being anywhere near any tractors, either. As for steely, I learned that from my man Mike Mulhern at the Winston-Salem Journal. He is the very definition of steely.

Marty,

I'm not sure who the official was in Saturday's truck race at Martinsville, but NASCAR needs to recognize him for a job well done. He did an awesome job of yanking a crewmember out of the way who was nearly backed over by his own truck.

That is why officials are involved during pit stops every now and then, everyone tries to watch out for one another down there.

-- Jason, Orange Va.

His name is Andy Holder, Jason. Good ol' boy. Total stud. Andy's as big as a Craftsman Truck.

Side note: I lived in Orange, Va., for the first three years of life. I have this vague recollection of crisp spring air and a duckie tricycle. Weird.

Back to Mark Martin for a moment:

Marty,

Before Mark Martin and Roush Racing parted ways it was reported Mark's son Matt Martin had already signed a contract with Ford Racing for his racing future. I saw the other week when Martin was tutoring Ricky Carmichael, the Martin-prepared late model Ricky was driving had a bow tie on it.

Has Mark's switch to Ginn Racing and Chevy had any effect on the deal Matt Martin has with Ford, or is he now the next Kyle Busch?

-- Brandon, Anderson, S.C.

I asked Martin for you, Brandon, and he said Matt is still a Ford development driver, despite Mark's attempt to end the relationship out of guilt.

"I tried to resist that, but [Ford Racing executive] Dan Davis wanted to continue," Mark said. "I didn't feel like it was fair and right to take any money from them because I'm driving a Chevrolet."

Mark Martin is the man. Gotta love that.

That's all for today, kiddies. Time to pack the Justin boots and head to the ranch.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.

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