CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Any chance Mark Martin had of retiring
this year from the Nextel Cup Series ended Thursday when Roush
Racing said he will drive in 2006.
Martin had accepted that he'd probably have to race next season,
but had held out faint hope that Roush could find a suitable
replacement for him in the No. 6 Ford. With time running out, Roush
locked in Martin to return for a 19th season.
Todd Kluever, who currently drives for Roush in the Craftsman Truck
Series, will replace Martin in 2007. AAA, a new company to NASCAR,
will replace Viagra as sponsor of the car.
"I consider the No. 6 car to be one of the top-five most
legendary cars in NASCAR history," Kluever said. "I don't think
that anybody will be able to replace Mark Martin. He has big shoes
to fill, but I'll do my best to try."
Jamie McMurray was originally tabbed to replace Martin but has
been unable to gain an early release from his contract with Chip
Ganassi Racing. When he does, he will now replace reigning Nextel
Cup champion Kurt Busch in the No. 97 Ford at Roush.
Busch is scheduled to drive for Penske Racing in 2007, but
there's still a long shot possibility that Ganassi, Penske and
Roush can come to an agreement that permits the drivers to swap
teams at the end of this year.
Ganassi, who had been vehemently opposed to allowing McMurray to
leave early, has softened in stance and would be open to a deal if
he could find a suitable driver to fill McMurray's seat.
As Roush has learned, that's easier said than done these days
because of a thin talent pool. Although the Busch Series is loaded
with young, marketable drivers, few are ready to step into a
big-time Cup ride.
"The driver situation in the garage right now is horrible for
replacements," Martin lamented earlier this month. "There is no
one who is ready to step into a top car. That's why people are
fighting over Kurt Busch and Jamie McMurray -- there's no one
available that's ready.
"There are going to be a lot of drivers freed up next year and
hopefully there will be some rookies that look like they're ready,
but, as of today, there are no rookies that are available that look
like they're ready to step into a car like the 6 car."
Martin had planned to make this season his last after a storied
NASCAR career. Considered one of the best drivers to never win a
championship, Martin has finished second a heartbreaking four times
in the title chases.
Martin has accumulated 35 wins in his 18 years and has started
577 consecutive Cup races.
He teamed with Roush in 1988 to form Roush Racing, which started
as a fledgling single-car operation. Today, Roush has five cars --
and all five drivers qualified for the 10-man Chase for the
championship -- and has won the past two Cup titles.
"I love my team and Jack Roush too much to leave them with a
total empty hole for 2006," Martin said of his decision to return.