This time, Martin won’t be talked out of retirement


CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – Amid confetti and champagne after last year’s All-Star win, it became abundantly clear that Mark Martin was already having second thoughts about ending his Nextel Cup career.

“Thank you guys! Thank you!” Martin screamed as he crossed the finish line. “I’ll be back next year if you give me a ride!”

At that moment, Martin was only considering coming back for another Nextel All-Star Challenge. But as the months dragged on and his car owner struggled to find a suitable replacement, Martin was talked into postponing his retirement for another year.

So here he is a year later, in his second farewell tour with time running out on an illustrious 25-year career. He’ll make what is supposed to be his final appearance in the Nextel All-Star Challenge on Saturday night, when he’ll attempt to defend his title.

Then he’ll finish out the season, which he’s certain will be his last of full-time Nextel Cup racing.

“I never say never because how many times can you get away with that?” he said. “But I will say I am not going run another full schedule. I have 13 more weekends off in 2007 than I will have in 2006, and no event is going to get those – no broadcasting, no racing.”

His family isn’t so convinced that Martin will be able to walk away so cleanly.

“All this changing his mind, he’s starting to look like an idiot!” his 14-year-old son, Matt, said Friday. “He said last year was going to be his last, then he came back this year. Now this year is going to be his last, but then he says maybe not.

“I think the problem is how much he knows he’s going to miss it.”

Perhaps that’s what happened to Martin last year, when Jack Roush twisted his arm to return to the No. 6 Ford.

Roush didn’t have anyone ready – or worthy – to step into one of the most respected rides in NASCAR, and Martin refused to leave his longtime car owner in a lurch.

The only problem was that Martin had already committed to running a significant portion of the Craftsman Truck Series schedule. He also agreed to some Busch Series races, and to the IROC schedule.

So, instead of scaling back, Martin is doing more than ever. So much so, that his wife is eager to find the light at the end of the tunnel.

“I told him “No more,”‘ Arlene Martin said. “I’m ready for him to be home and I think he will be unless something really, really exceptional comes along.”

A full truck schedule has already come along for 2007, and few people would be surprised if Martin isn’t talked into another race here or there. It can sneak up on a guy like Martin, who is passionate about racing and winning.

“I’m no Kenny Schrader, but I am racing quite a bit this year – that’s for sure,” he said. “I just wound up involved in a lot.”

But all that racing takes energy and desire, something the 47-year-old Martin sometimes struggles to find within himself. He’s feeling good right now, in fourth in the points and in solid position to make the Chase for the championship.

That’s always the way he’s wanted to go out – at the top of the game – and a title wouldn’t be too bad, either. Martin has famously failed to win one over his career, something his fellow drivers hope doesn’t stain his legacy.

“I honestly think the one thing people will bring up first when they talk about Mark Martin is that he left here and didn’t win a championship,” two-time champion Tony Stewart said. “But I really think people need to overlook that because that should be third or fourth on what he’s remembered for.

“I think what he’s done for this sport as far as mentoring so many drivers, how he really established the etiquette for this sport, and how he’s always been a really competitive driver are more important. There is not one driver in this series that doesn’t have the utmost respect for Mark Martin as a driver.”

Martin is constantly cited as the example on how to correctly do things on and off the track. His dominance of the Busch Series, he has a record 47 victories, is envied. And his skill is unquestioned and backed by his five IROC titles.

But Martin doesn’t waste time trying to figure out what his spot in NASCAR history will be.

“I just want to be remembered,” he said.

AP-ES-05-19-06 1845EDT