Lure of a possible Cup championship too strong for Martin to pass up

7/4/2008 - NASCAR
Mark Martin on his about-face to pursue a full-time Cup ride at Hendrick Motorsports: "I make no apologies for not knowing exactly what my whole life holds for me." AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Brett Favre reportedly is considering a comeback in the NFL at 39. Mark Martin is giving up his part-time schedule in the Sprint Cup series to make one last run at a championship with Hendrick Motorsports at 49.

Next thing you know, Michael Jordan will come out of retirement for the umpteenth time.

The competitive juices that drive athletes to compete make it hard to step away as well. They do for Martin, who has finished runner-up four times in his quest to become NASCAR's version of Super Bowl champion.

Because Martin has Favre-like talent when it comes to driving a 3,500-pound stock car, he had the option to pick which team gives him the best shot at winning a title.

He chose the No. 5 at HMS, which has won the past two titles with Jimmie Johnson and seven since Jeff Gordon won the first of his four in 1995.

It's no different than George Foreman returning to boxing three times in his quest to win another heavyweight title. Or Jordan returning one more time to the NBA.

Martin is different because he never completely retired. He scaled back, figuring it would be best to ease out of the sport that has dominated his life for 35 years. Most athletes don't have that option.

The Packers aren't going to sign Favre to a deal to play in 10 regular-season games and the playoffs.

But if Favre had that option he might take it. He'd at least have a clause that freed him from mandatory offseason conditioning, minicamp and most of training camp.

Martin had that type of schedule the past two years. He's gone to his favorite tracks and avoided those like Talladega that he dislikes.

But since it is impossible to win a title running a part-time schedule, and since he has rekindled the gene that makes all athletes want to compete, he's going back on a promise he never promised to keep.

"I saw something the other day likening me to him, Brett," Martin said. "I don't know much about football. All I know is Matt Kenseth thinks he's the greatest thing since sliced bread.

"I don't know for sure, but I think he's awfully good at what he does. People would still like to see him come back again."

Martin paused. He was trying to explain why people like him and Favre keep doing the things they do.

"I don't know how to explain to you," he said. "I make no apologies for not knowing exactly what my whole life holds for me. When you're pretty good at something and it's been the focus of your life ... for 35 years and you're still pretty good at it ... you probably don't want to [stop].

"For me, until I'm not still pretty good at it, I don't have anything else really, beyond my love for family ... anything else with that kind of passion that I have for racing."

Martin thought he could step away from that passion at the end of 2006. Like Favre after coming so close to getting back to the Super Bowl last season, he was worn out from countless long seasons.

But as Favre likely refreshed after missing minicamp and offseason conditioning, Martin has a new outlook on life after a year and a half as a part-time driver. He says he's in the best condition of his life, which team owner Rick Hendrick will attest to after seeing his six-pack abs.

He says he feels younger now than he did five years ago.

He also isn't ready to give up the camaraderie that athletes talk about after leaving the sport.

"The two years that I've had to reflect on that, there's special relationships that I have with people like Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton," Martin said. "The respect that guys like Jimmie and Dale [Earnhardt Jr.] have shown me, Jeff Gordon and many others, if I never come to another race then that's all gone."

And for now Martin isn't ready to come to the track as a spectator, so his perspective on his all or nothing promise has changed.

"And I have told you guys that if it was all or nothing that I would choose nothing," Martin said. "Well, maybe I have changed my mind -- again. If I was given the chance of nothing or all in the 5 car, I chose the 5 car.

"If I can do something that will give me a chance to win and I can still do it, then I'll still want to do it."

And most believe Martin can still do it. He started last season with three straight top-5s -- including a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 -- and five straight top-10s. He finished with an amazing 11 top-10s in 26 starts.

If I can do something that will give me a chance to win and I can still do it, then I'll still want to do it.

-- Mark Martin

He's has five top-10s and two top-5s in 12 starts entering Saturday night's race at Daytona International Speedway.

"Eight, 10 years from now he'll still be able to win championships," two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart said. "He's that competitive. You look at how good of shape he's in and how good of a job he does at taking care of himself, he's a guy that can go as long as he has the desire to go."

Stewart understands Martin's dilemma. He thought he could walk away from open-wheel racing when he signed to drive stock cars for Joe Gibbs Racing in 1998.

"That lasted about five months," said Stewart, who still runs midgets and sprint cars. "It's hard to stay away when you spend your whole life and dedicate your whole life to it. It's hard to stop and do something different."

Gordon said he can still learn things from Martin.

"Mark has amazing patience, but he has amazing drive and commitment," he said. "I'm not saying he's old. I'm just saying there's not too many guys out there, or have been out there in the past at his age that are as competitive as he is through all the changes that have gone on through cars, teams and everything else."

Gordon has gone as far as to suggest he'd like to bow out of the sport with a part-time schedule as Martin has.

Of course, that means he'll have to make a full-time comeback as well.

It's the nature of the beast.

"I really believe it has to do with the fire and desire," Martin said. "As you guys have noticed, I may change my mind from time to time. But one thing is for sure, whatever I decide to do that's what I'm going to do."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.