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Martin joins the old gang in passing torch to youngsters

Like three others earlier, he decides to retire from NASCAR.

Published October 15, 2004

CONCORD, N.C. - When Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough and David Pearson retired in the twilight of the 1980s, they left 272 wins and seven championships in NASCAR's annals, a beachhead for the sport's coming invasion of America and a wide void for someone to fill.

Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, Mark Martin and Bill Elliott rushed in. The sport went on. It thrived.

Thursday, Martin joined Elliott, Wallace and Terry Labonte in announcing retirement within the next two seasons, helping create yet another void but another opportunity for the next generation. After 22 seasons, 596 races and 34 wins, Martin is ready to give someone else a turn following the 2005 season. And he's excited about sitting back and seeing what happens.

"I remember when I was first trying to get in and we had Benny Parsons and Buddy Baker and Darrell Waltrip and Cale Yarborough and, man, Richard Petty," Martin said. "There was no room for me. They didn't need me down here in 1982.

"When the guard started to change, it was an exciting time for some of us younger guys."

Exciting, but at the same time daunting.

"It's scary to me because I really think us young guys, us young drivers that are in this sport, really need to open our eyes and pay attention to where these guys have taken us," said Elliott Sadler, 29. "We have to carry the torch forward and keep carrying it.

"I think us as young drivers really need to realize and really take the sport to keep it going on the path that they've got us going in."

NASCAR survived a torch-passing and found a new star after Dale Earnhardt's death on the last lap of the February 2001 Daytona 500.

"We basically lost our Michael Jordan at Daytona several years back," John Andretti said. "I guess that was about the biggest test we could probably endure and the sport continued to grow. I think we've got a pretty strong foothold, and Dale Jr. coming along ... I guess it's like Michael Jordan Jr. coming along."

Dale Earnhardt Jr., who just turned 30 this week, has a thriving legend, one in need only of a few championships to validate the hysteria surrounding the sport's most popular driver. Jeff Gordon has won four titles by age 33. Kurt Busch, 26, leads the driver standings with six races left in the season. Jimmie Johnson, 29, and Ryan Newman, 26, have combined for 21 wins and 33 poles in just more than 100 races each.

But once 1999 series champion Dale Jarrett, 47, Ricky Rudd, 48, and Sterling Marlin, 47, retire within in the next few years, Nextel Cup's elders will be in their mid 30s. The rigors of a 10-month schedule and the feasibility of getting into NASCAR young and out healthy and wealthy in a few years is decreasingly the likelihood of 20-year careers.

"I definitely think the next number (of senior drivers) will be like 40," Martin said, "instead of 45 or 50. And then I think the next wave will be more like 35."

Many young drivers cannot imagine being around long enough to amass the kind of records and legacies of this passing generation.

"(Drivers in previous generations) didn't have press conferences and sponsorship responsibilities and hospitality to go do all the days of a race, the things that will wear a driver out," said 20-year-old Nextel Cup rookie Brian Vickers. "When I raced go-karts and we raced two or three races a week, I didn't feel like it was enough. If we raced that much now, man it would kill you."

Rudd has lasted in the series since 1975, but doubt still ricochets through his mind. Neither he nor Jarrett needs to be reminded that an emotional news conference is in their future. That made Rudd's second-place finish at Kansas on Sunday a tonic in many ways.

"We've run bad for a year and a half and, believe me, it weighs heavily on your mind," he said. "All of a sudden you start thinking, "Is it me?' All of a sudden you hop in a good race car that goes around the corner and you get those questions sort of re-answered and it sort of rejuvenates you a little bit and makes you want to hang around a little longer."

But when the time comes, he'll be replaced.

[Last modified October 15, 2004, 01:31:23]


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