Martin's streak of 621 starts comes to screeching halt

Updated: March 23, 2007, 7:00 PM ET
Associated Press

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The show went on at Bristol Motor Speedway without Mark Martin.

Reagan Smith
Harry How/Getty ImagesRegan Smith on sitting in for Mark Martin: "It's pretty big shoes for me to fill."
The Nextel Cup points leader lived up to his word Friday and handed the keys to his car to newcomer Regan Smith, snapping his streak of 621 consecutive starts.

As Martin moved to the top of the leaderboard, where he holds an eight-point advantage over Jeff Gordon, many questioned whether he would get out of the car, likely forfeiting his chance at the Cup title that has eluded him over 19 full seasons.

But come Sunday, Martin will be at a cookout with friends and family at his Daytona Beach home, watching the race on TV.

"Turning the reins over to me, it's a pretty big deal to hop in as a rookie into the car that's leading the points," Smith said. "It's pretty big shoes for me to fill."

The 23-year-old will make his series debut Sunday after spending the past five years in the Busch Series, where he's only scored a pair of top-10 finishes in 90 career starts. Still, Smith was picked to be Martin's protege as the veteran tries to ease into retirement.

If the tight confines of Bristol's bullring wasn't enough to deal with, Smith also must contend with the launch of the Car of Tomorrow.

The car, which spent seven years in development, is expected to improve safety, cut team costs and foster increased competition. Driving the new car is an adjustment for the veterans, an adventure for the newcomers.

"I look at the Car of Tomorrow as just another race car that all of us have to deal with," said Smith, who tested the COT here last month. "I don't see it being anything major. It's a race car, and we've all driven many different types of cars in our careers."

Instead, Smith said Bristol -- a .533-mile ring that produces door-to-door racing and numerous wrecks -- will provide the biggest challenge.

"I think everyone would agree that Bristol is not the easiest track," he said. "It's a tough place when you're having a good day. The mind-set from our end is not to expect a win or a top-10 finish. I want to finish the race, be on the lead lap and have the car in one piece. That's a tall order for Bristol, but with some luck, I think we can deliver that result."

Martin's not worried.

"Regan's biggest challenge at Bristol will be to try to avoid everyone else's troubles," he said. "Obviously, we'd like to see him run all 500 laps, and that's not easy to do even for a veteran up there."

Martin plans to watch the race on TiVo so he can replay "the wrecks, moving them back and going forward and watching them in slow motion," which also will allow him to critique Smith when it's over.

Martin's embracing his new role as a mentor.

He'll spend Saturday at Columbia Motorsports Park in Lake City, Fla., helping son Matt and NASCAR newcomer Ricky Carmichael in a late model race.

Matt Martin, 15, has years of experience behind the wheel, but Carmichael, a motocross star, is just getting started. The 27-year-old driver is in Ginn Racing's development system and has done five tests, but this will be his first time on the track with other cars.

Martin said he thinks Carmichael will be a quick study.

"This is the first step in converting from two wheels to four, and we're going to take it easy and not try to get in too deep here on this first race," Martin said. "Then kind of ramp it up with each event following this first weekend. But this weekend is all about getting comfortable in the race car and getting comfortable with other cars around. And it's just going to be a lot of fun."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press