CONCORD, N.C. - Gil de Ferran lived Mark Martin's dream. He went out on his own terms, with a win and, most important, with respect.
Martin, 45, a winner of 34 races (17th-best all time) and a four-time championship runnerup in NASCAR's top series, announced Thursday his intentions to leave that series as a full-time driver after the 2005 season. Martin, flanked by his wife, Arlene, NASCAR president Mike Helton and Jack Roush, his team owner since 1988, said he is still figuring out his plans beyond next season. He will race, he said, but not full time in Nextel Cup. Among the options he is considering is a run in the NASCAR Truck series.
"I'm too young to retire," Martin said, "but I've had enough of this full schedule and this battle. It's been tough on me and it's been tough on my family and I have to look forward to opening the next chapter."
Martin repeatedly stressed his desire to leave Nextel Cup while still competitive. He still is, standing fifth in the Chase for the Championship (150 points out of first) with a win and 13 top 10s. It would be almost too much for a cynic like Martin to dream about going out like de Ferran: taking the pole and the victory in his last Indy Racing League start last October at Texas, finishing the season second in points.
"Gil de Ferran brought a tear to my eye," Martin said.
It would be a kind finish to what has often been a cruel career. Martin finished second in the driver standings four times, third four other times. He lost by 26 points to Dale Earnhardt in 1990 after a failed inspection earlier in the season cost him 46 points in penalties. He lost to Tony Stewart by 38 points in 2002 when a late-season rules adjustment favored Stewart's Pontiac.
Possessor of the most wins in Busch series history (45), Martin was named one of NASCAR's 50 greatest drivers in 1998.
The announcement of Martin's "My Salute to You Tour" was emotional for both the normally stoic Martin and Roush, who sniffled his way through a long prepared tribute. Roush, who won his first Cup title last year with Matt Kenseth, Martin's protege, called his association with Martin "the proudest accomplishment of my business life."
"The best times we had, we didn't know we were having them at the time," Martin said.
QUALIFYING: Casey Mears won the pole for tonight's SpongeBob SquarePants Movie 300 Busch race, covering the 1.5-mile Lowe's Motor Speedway in 29.506 seconds at 183.014 mph in his No. 41 Dodge. He held the pole and the track record (28.834) hours later in Nextel Cup qualifying until Ryan Newman recorded a blistering 28.590 at 188.877 in the No. 12 Dodge.
"With the track conditions we had, it was going to be a track-record night for somebody," Newman said of qualifying in the cool night air for Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500.
The pole was the sixth of the season for Newman and 24th of his career in 111 starts.
Jimmie Johnson set the record of 28.869 (187.052) in the spring race. Rookie Kasey Kahne (28.829) also broke the track record and will start second, moving Mears to third and giving Dodge the top three spots. Dodges have won 14 poles but just four races this season.
CAREFUL: Leave it to "Humpy" Wheeler to find the humor in a sticky issue. The Lowe's Motor Speedway president and mischiefmaker commissioned "Humpy's Soundbite Sanitizer," a twist of heating ducts, tube lights and plastic containers, and stationed it on Victory Lane to cleanse any potential profanities like the one that cost Dale Earnhardt Jr. $10,000 and 25 points after winning at Talladega.
SPARK PLUGS: Bobby Labonte crushed the rear of his No. 18 Chevrolet during a practice crash and went to a backup car.