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What if Mark Martin had won last year's 500?
By Brant James, Times Staff Writer
Published February 16, 2008
DAYTONA BEACH - Cameras flashed and fireworks popped, underpinning the confusion as Mark Martin circled Daytona International Speedway. He had just won the Daytona 500. Finally, after 23 tries. Hadn't he?
He had been a nose ahead of Kevin Harvick when the field turned into a maelstrom behind them in the final few hundred feet. If a caution flew, the field was frozen, and Martin had won. Worry tinged his voice as he radioed to crew chief Ryan Pemberton.
"I can't believe they waited. Doggone it, that's a headache! I really thought that thing was ours, guys. It still might be. We were ahead, man. I was waiting for them to throw the yellow."
But NASCAR didn't. Martin and Harvick were allowed to race to the finish, defying protocol, and Harvick was 0.02 seconds better. And the shockwaves spread forth.
Harvick went to the Daytona 500 Experience museum the next day to see his car inducted, then to New York for the national media tour. Martin said the right things and went home.
But what if Martin had won? He might have altered a chain of events that drastically affected organizations, drivers and families. Ginn Racing, which hired Martin as its lead driver in 2006, came to Daytona Beach last year with financial problems already showing. Sponsors were wavering. Payroll was a weekly concern.
The exposure from a Daytona 500 win might have drawn new sponsors. Developer Bobby Ginn might not have had to sell his team to Dale Earnhardt Inc. Sterling Marlin, a two-time 500 winner and a member of MB2 Motorsports when Ginn bought it, might have gotten that last full-time season at age 50. He and Joe Nemechek would not have had to sue for back wages. Pemberton would not have left a team he helped found. And general manager Jay Frye, another founder, might not have had to go into the shop one July afternoon with a list of employees who weren't to return the next day.
Pemberton's life had run parallel to this organization's since he and Frye used Pemberton's disintegrating Busch Series team to seed what would become MB2 in 1996, including hiring many of the original employees still with the team last summer.
Pemberton's personal stake remained total. As Martin led nearly all of the final 26 laps at Daytona, the crew chief's emotions swelled.
And when Martin lost by the smallest margin in the track's era of electronic scoring, he was dumbfounded.
The emotions remain raw.
"If it happened 10 more times, (Martin) would have won it the other nine times," Pemberton said. ..."I'm still a little bitter over it."
But would Martin winning the Daytona 500 have saved the organization?
"Oh, yeah," he said. "Any one thing would have been a lot different for that whole company, from a financial standpoint for Ginn. It would have bled over to the whole company."
Frye, now with Red Bull Racing, doesn't agree. He owned 20 percent of Ginn Racing until he sold it in the merger. He was forced to serve as executioner after the merger.
"July 31," he said. "Up until 4 o'clock that day I was getting names from DEI: This one stays, this one goes. ... The first person's name I read in the list that wasn't coming back was me."
But would a win have mattered?
"I don't think it would," he said, "because we got more exposure, or as much exposure to our company based on (Martin) finishing second."
Marlin stood outside the hauler this week, relegated to the have-nots side of the Sprint Cup garage at Daytona. The two-time Daytona 500 winner was looking out of place.
He and Nemechek had driven their race cars onto the driving range of Ginn's Reunion resort as part of a splashy introductory news conference in 2006. Marlin was convinced the developer would make the team competitive and revive his career.
Instead, his and Nemechek's programs were shuttered. Ultimately, Marlin said, wasted money might have been as much to blame as over-ambition or poor sponsorship.
"You don't need $300,000 pit boxes. That's doesn't make the car go any faster," said Marlin, now on a part-time schedule with Phoenix Racing.
And if Martin had won?
"It probably would have helped a whole lot," Marlin said. "I think it would have brought more sponsorship dollars to the team, more credibility."
The stiff upper lip
Martin will not complain about the Daytona 500. He will do nothing but express pride in what he felt was the best effort of his career.
"It would be different if I fell asleep coming off Turn 4," he said. "I'm proud to have been that close."
He will not speculate on what might have been. Resolute to the point of cantankerousness, he doesn't think a win would have the changed anything but where he drove his car after the race. He landed quickly at DEI.
"What happened happened for a reason. and I don't think a trophy would have made a difference. This is serious business," he said. "I think we still would have been running teams there that were not funded. ... Bobby would still have had to look at it and say, 'Whoo, there's an opportunity for me to get out from under this heat.'"
But what if?
3:30 p.m. Sunday, Daytona International Speedway, Daytona Beach. TV/radio: Ch.13; 620-AM
Sunday forecast for Daytona Beach: Sunny, 72 degrees, 10 percent chance of rain, wind 8 mph.
[Last modified February 15, 2008, 23:52:10]