CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mark Martin gave up a spot in the show to watch it from home, and wouldn't change a thing about his first weekend off in 622 NASCAR races.
Martin wasn't sure how he'd feel watching Sunday's race from Bristol Motor Speedway, but after dozing off twice during the 500-mile event, he realized he can live without racing.
"I never once wished I was out there," Martin said Monday. "When they started the engines, there was a few seconds there that seemed a little bit eerie to me. But that was the only time that it ever even crossed my mind.
"There was no anxiety whatsoever. I enjoyed watching the race. I nodded off once or twice during a commercial, but snapped right back up. It was just a wonderful weekend. I wouldn't trade it for a Nextel Cup."
It was the final hurdle Martin had to cross to know for sure that he can continue his plan of easing into retirement.
He tried to walk away from NASCAR's highest level, only to be pulled back into the 36-race schedule by former car owner Jack Roush.
Then Ginn Racing gave him a chance to set his own schedule, and Martin jumped at the idea of reclaiming part of his life back. But the pressure to abandon his partial-schedule plan mounted after a terrific start to the season put Martin on top of the Nextel Cup standings.
Five years ago, the pursuit of a championship would have consumed Martin.
After 19 years of chasing the Cup - with four heartbreaking runner-up finishes - Martin is finally at peace with what hardware he does have. Under no circumstance would he allow himself to be sucked back in for another run.
So he stuck with his plan to take the weekend off, knowing full well it was going to be the test he needed to figure out the rest of his career.
If his heart ached from being away from the track, and he lay awake at night regretting his decision, Martin would know he wasn't ready to walk away.
But if he could sit back and enjoy a rare weekend with the family, then Martin would finally be free.
He was free on Monday, never sounding more rested and relaxed.
"Some people maybe think I am not doing this by choice, and wonder why am I slowing down because the performance has been really well the last three or so years," Martin said. "I am not doing it because I still can't have a good day on the racetrack. It's just that racing has been first in my life for over 30 years, and I definitely had to make a change in that.
"The time has come to do that, and based on how I felt yesterday, I am more excited than ever about my life."
In the interest of full disclosure, Martin was hardly removed from the action at Bristol.
He spoke daily with crew chief Ryan Pemberton and replacement driver Regan Smith, followed practice on the computer and watched qualifying on TV. He even took a couple of calls from good buddy Jeff Burton.
But he also found time do a few family things.
Martin spent Friday night with his in-laws, then headed to Columbia Motorsports Park in Lake City, Fla., to help son Matt and NASCAR newcomer Ricky Carmichael in a Late Model race.
Martin stepped right into his role as Carmichael's coach, watching from the top of a hauler as he talked the motorcycle star around the track.
Carmichael finished third in his heat race to advance to the main feature, where an accident on the second lap led to a flat tire that sent his Chevrolet into the wall. Matt Martin, racing for the first time since September, finished fourth in his heat and seventh in the feature. "Ricky showed his incredible talent and ability and got really fast, made large gains, and we learned a lot in a short period of time," Martin said. "I tried to get him to focus on the lessons that he learned and not the final result."
After a late night at the track, Martin hustled back to Daytona Beach on Sunday morning so Matt Martin could play paint ball with his friends. The 15-year-old is unsure how far he wants to go in racing, and is trying to find a balance between being a teenager and a budding NASCAR star.
"I don't know if he knows for sure that he wants to be famous," Martin said. "A lot of 15-year-old racecar drivers don't know what it would be like to be to be a NASCAR driver. This kid does. "But I would rather he doesn't want it, anyway. I think every parent wants better for their kids than what they've had, and we have a lot of scar tissue from this."
Martin will continue being a regular citizen this weekend, when he plans to pick his grandson up in Tennessee then head to Arkansas for a party with his oldest friends. They'll gather around the TV in Batesville to watch the race at Martinsville Speedway, and Martin is convinced a few of his competitors would probably like to join him.
"Certainly this isn't something you would want if you were 25 or 35," he said. "But if you take a guy like Matt Kenseth and let him do this 13 more years, then see what he thinks. Or Jeff Burton, put him out there eight or nine more years.
"I am sure you won't see Tony Stewart in eight or nine more years. Although he might be eyeing a schedule like mine, him and Jeff Gordon both. There just comes a time when you have to stake a claim on your life, and mine is now."
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