Saturday’s Sharpie 500 served as a crossroads in the history of stock car racing.
The event was Mark Martin’s 1,000th career NASCAR start and marked the 10th anniversary of Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s final victory at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Both Martin and Earnhardt are legends, but their approach to driving couldn’t be any different. Earnhardt was a hard-charger and willing to do whatever was necessary to win a race. He proved that 10 years ago when he put his fender into Terry Labonte’s car, spinning him up the track in turn two to earn the win.
On Saturday night, Martin found himself presented with the same choice Earnhardt had 10 years ago.
Martin was riding in second place behind Kyle Busch with four laps to go. He was able to get the nose of his car underneath Busch on more than one occasion in the closing laps, but instead of moving Busch out of the way to grab a victory, Martin was content to race him clean and settle for second.
“I feel really, really good at night when I go to bed,” Martin said. “I have managed to win a race or two, and none of ’em did I have to pull something dirty.”
Earnhardt was booed so loudly 10 years ago that his comments in Victory Lane were barely audible.
Martin, on the other hand, received a warm reaction from the crowd during a pre-race ceremony and again after finishing second.
While Martin may have won the popularity contest last night, it should be noted that Busch won the race — just like Earnhardt won the race 10 years ago.
At the end of the day, people love Martin because he’s a gentleman, but they respect Earnhardt because he was a seven- time Cup champion.
Martin will tell you that he’ll do anything to win, but only up to a certain point. There are lines he is not willing to cross.
Martin’s performance this season has him on the verge of making the Chase for the championship, and there is talk that he will be among the favorites to win his first career title if everything goes smoothly over the next two races.
But there is a reason Martin hasn’t won a championship by now. He points to the bad luck that he’s had along the way, leading to a couple of seasons where he fell just a few points short of a title.
Bad luck, however, is part of every racer’s life. It can’t be avoided; it has to be overcome. You overcome it by making the most of the good days, by turning second-place runs i to victories.
On Saturday, Martin repeated some advice he got from Dick Trickle back in 1978 as a defense for the way he raced Busch.
“In order to finish first,” Martin said, “first you must finish.”
Earnhardt had a different take on the situation. He proved that when he put the fender of his No. 3 Chevy into the bumper of Labonte’s No. 5 in an effort to “rattle his cage a little bit.” He could have wrecked himself in the process, but winning was worth the risk.
Earnhardt was more concerned with being respected by his competitors than he was with being loved by them.
By being unwilling to cross the line and put his fender into Busch, Martin gained a lot of admiration from the fans and his fellow drivers.
What he didn’t get, however, was a trophy and all the respect that goes with it.
Dave Ongie covers motorsports for the Kingsport Times-News. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.