Martin to replace Mears in full-time role with Hendrick Motorsports
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin wanted one last shot at winning a Sprint Cup championship and Rick Hendrick wanted somebody that could put the No. 5 car in championship contention.
So they put their heads together and reached a deal.
Martin confirmed on Friday that he will give up his part-time job in the No. 8 car at Dale Earnhardt Inc. to drive the No. 5 car full time next season at Hendrick Motorsports.
A four-time runner-up in NASCAR's premier series, the 49-year-old Martin then will split the 2010 schedule with a driver to be named later.
"The number one factor for me was to drive a car I thought I could win in," Martin said before qualifying for Saturday night's Nationwide Series race at Daytona International Speedway. "The full schedule wasn't my first choice.
"When I looked at the field, the climate, the options or possible opportunities to drive a limited schedule out there that could win, I didn't see anything that looked nearly as attractive as going to drive the No. 5 car. If it took driving it full time to get it, then that's what I was going to do."
Martin has won 32 races in 710 career starts that began in 1981. A perennial title contender, he finished second in the standings an agonizing four times, including his runner-up finish to Tony Stewart in 2002.
He considered retiring at the end of the 2005 season, but was coaxed back for one final season with Roush Fenway Racing. He finished ninth in the standings that season.
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Martin then devised a partial schedule plan with now-defunct Ginn Racing, and nearly won the Daytona 500 in their first race together -- he was nipped at the finish line by Kevin Harvick. But it set the stage for a strong start to the season that had Martin leading the points and the entire industry wondering if he'd really step out of the car.
He did, sticking to his decision to run just 24 races last season and forfeiting the chance to win the championship. His contract was sold to Dale Earnhardt Inc. when Ginn walked away from NASCAR midway through last season, and Martin is splitting his seat there with Aric Almirola this year.
Martin said he probably wouldn't have made this decision two years ago when he announced he was ending a 19-year relationship with Roush Fenway to run a part-time schedule for Ginn in the No. 01 car. DEI's John Story said Martin was at least twice offered opportunities to drive a full schedule there, but Martin declined. He said the possibility of Martin stepping away from the No. 8 came up when Martin was told the company wanted to put Almirola into a full-time ride.
Martin said he didn't want to stand in the way of Almirola, as he promised Joe Gibbs Racing president J.D. Gibbs that he would groom Almirola when he was released to sign with DEI.
"I had so much fun this year driving the No. 8 car that I really would have loved to have driven a 26-race schedule next year," Martin said. "That would not have been fair to Aric Almirola. Aric is ready to be a full-time Cup driver."
Hendrick has courted Martin off and on several times over the past 20 years, but their stars never aligned. They finally worked together last season when Martin drove an HMS Nationwide car at Las Vegas.
"He amazed me how he could read that car," Hendrick said.
"Jeff called me and said, 'You don't believe how much talent Mark Martin's got. He got in my car, it was unbelievable what he was doing,'" Hendrick said.
And while Hendrick believes Martin has a legitimate shot to win a title for him, he said Martin has nothing to prove.
"He's done that," he said. "Just being able to work with him the last year and a half in the Nationwide car, he will make our company better."
Martin said finishing fifth at Phoenix earlier this year after leading 68 laps gave him a taste of what it could be like to win again, and that he felt HMS gave him the best option of achieving that.
"I know most people can't comprehend what an honor it is for me to be invited to be a part of this organization, especially at this stage of my career," Martin said. "After two years of catching my breath, I've enjoyed it.
"It's been very meaningful to my family and myself. I've also learned and rekindled my passion for racing and what it means to me. It's also given me a taste of what it would be like to not have that in my life. All those things played in this decision."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this story.