Mark Martin has been elected to the National Motorsports Hall of Fame. Heck, reckon that is only fitting since he’s already been named to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Both inductions will occur in January.
Martin is one of the best drivers in NASCAR history. He won 40 races over the course of 31 years and held the record for most XFINITY Series races, 49, until Kyle Busch came along.
Although he finished second in the final season point standings four times Martin never won a title. This has prompted several to proclaim him “The Greatest NASCAR Driver To Have Never Won A Championship.”
I’m not sure how Martin feels about that label. He may be an easy-going guy but I wouldn’t say it to his face.
But it is a fact that Martin never won a title. However, barring a most unusual incident that resulted in an arbitrary post-race penalty, Martin would have won the championship in 1990 – which was only his third full season with team owner Jack Roush.
In 1988 Roush resurrected Martin’s NASCAR career, which seemed to have come to an end after a failed attempt to field his own team in 1982.
The Martin-Roush union clicked almost immediately. Martin was a well-known and well-skilled driver who won often on the short tracks of the Midwest.
Roush, from Michigan, was a renowned automobile engineer and innovator with a solid racing background.
In 1990, when it came to contenders, Martin’s name was mentioned often. So was Dale Earnhardt’s.
Earnhardt had already won three championships but never the Daytona 500. In 1990 he seemed to have the race in his hands. He led 155 of 200 laps in a dominating performance.
But fate crushed his hopes with a mile left in the race. Earnhardt ran over what was later described a broken bell housing in the second turn and he drifted high on the track.
That allowed unheralded Derrike Cope to take the lead and go on to win in what has become one of the most stunning finishes in NASCAR lore.
The next race was on the short track at Richmond. Martin ran down Earnhardt and Rusty Wallace over the last 10 miles to win his first race of the season and the second of his career.
An elated Martin celebrated in victory lane, chatted with the media and then drove home to North Carolina.
However … four hours after the race NASCAR Winston Cup Director Dick Beaty announced that the Roush team was guilty of a competitive crime.
The team’s carburetor was mounted on the engine’s intake manifold with an aluminum block spacer half an inch thicker that the two inches allowed.
Of course, the media had no idea how this was all illegal. Engine specialists from other teams explained that a taller spacer would improve airflow and could increase horsepower.
Beaty said the infraction came with a record $40,000 fine and the loss of 46 points.
The point loss would prove to be disastrous.
NASCAR explained that the loss of points was based upon the number of points Martin would have earned had he finished last on the lead lap.
Ten cars finished on the lead lap, hence Martin, who would have finished 10th, received 46 fewer points.
There were a lot of folks – competitors and media alike – who were scratching their heads over the explanation and the unusual turn of events.
“We got the death penalty for running a stop sign,” said Martin during a second post-race interview conducted by phone from his home. “What we had done didn’t give us an advantage over anyone. It wasn’t like we had a big engine or illegal tires.”
The point loss dropped Martin from sixth to 12th in points.
But he remained in contention for the rest of of the season. At Phoenix, the 28th and second-to-last race of the year, Earnhardt was the winner. It meant he had a six-point lead over Martin headed to the season’s last event at Atlanta.
In an unusual piece of strategy, Martin was placed in Robert Yates Ford for the Atlanta race. “We had to do something,” he explained.
But it was to no avail. Earnhardt finished third and Martin sixth. Consequently, Earnhardt won his fourth career title by 26 points – 4,430 to 4,404.
Think of it – for Martin it all would have been so much different without the circumstances at Richmond.
He became the second driver to lose a title due to a penalty. Lee Petty lost the 1950 championship when he was stripped of ALL points earned during the season.
“There were 29 races this season, not one,” Martin said. “We put that Richmond deal behind us a long time ago.”
But I would wager that Hall of Famer Mark Martin has never forgotten it.
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