Officials at Dale Earnhardt Inc. could not have picked a better driver to fill the seat of the No. 8 in 2008. Popular veteran Mark Martin, 49, is into his second part-time season at the Cup level. Martin will compete in 24 races this year with rookie Aric Almirola, age 24, driving the other 12.
After scoring two top-10 finishes in his first five events this season, Martin had consecutive top-fives in his next two races-at Phoenix, where he led for 68 laps, and at Richmond. Dale Earnhardt Jr. had back-to-back top-fives only once in his final season at DEI. Martin also has three straight top-10s and appears to be picking up steam for the competitive months ahead.
The Arkansas native and father of five will also drive in the May 17 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Challenge at Lowe’s Motor Speedway in Concord, an event he won just three seasons ago at age 46.
SceneDaily.com says Martin may be the best all around driver in NASCAR, even as he begins to ride into the sunset. While other drivers of similar age seem to be fading fast-e.g. Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, et al.-DEI may consider hiring Martin for the long haul for as many races as he wants.
Replacing Earnhardt Jr. in one of the world’s most recognizable cars, with the most tattooed and reproduced number in America , could not go to just any driver. When long-time sponsor Budweiser took its monogram off the hood of the fire-truck red Impala, the U.S. Army saved the day and the team, in part due to of Martin’s image and stature in the sport. The nation’s primary defense force had supported his part-time ride with Ginn Racing in ’07 before DEI bought out the fledgling team, and gladly came on board in ’08.
Martin, a 35-time winner at the Cup level with three runner-ups in the final point standings, along with four thirds but never a championship, had five top-fives in a part-time role for Ginn Racing last season (Ginn merged with DEI last summer). His last bridesmaid role came in ’02. He had consecutive fourth-place finishes as recently as ’04-’05.
The main excuse for Junior missing his second Chase in three seasons, and not winning in ’07, was the “shoddy equipment” and “poor engines” he was handed. Martin, one of the greatest Busch (now Nationwide) Series drivers ever and a Cup racer since 1981, was certainly the best choice to take the wheel of the No. 8 and to mentor a promising newcomer in Almirola.
Were it not for some lapped cars running unintentional interference at Richmond , Martin might have been in the position Clint Bowyer inherited when Kyle Busch and Junior had their late-race tango on May 3. As it is, Martin has out-performed nearly half the Cup field as a part-timer, and is fairing better than Earnhardt Jr. did one year ago with the same organization and much of the same crew.
Not bad for an ‘aging’ hired gun.