Martin's move to Hendrick gives him a last chance for elusive championship

Jerry Bonkowski

It's rare that any of us gets a second chance to accomplish something that has evaded us throughout our career.

But in 2009, Mark Martin gets another shot at achieving the one thing that has stayed just out of his reach during his three-decade racing career: the Sprint Cup championship.

Through the benevolence of Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick, a long-time Martin fan, Martin will not only get another shot, he'll also get arguably his best shot at the title.

"It’s just an opportunity that I absolutely could not let pass by at this point in my life," Martin said. "I was very concerned about regretting that decision for the rest of my life. And so I got my arms wrapped around the scheduling situation and here we go."

With Hendrick Motorsports horsepower and race cars, there's no question Martin will be considered one of the top candidates to win the title. After four runner-up finishes in his Cup career, the fifth time he comes close may very well be the charm.

"He has that ability to know what he wants and what the car needs," Hendrick said of Martin. "When you can implement that into what we have, it should make us all better."

Even though he'll be 50 years old when he embarks upon his quest for that elusive championship, Martin is in top shape physically and mentally – perhaps more so than drivers that are 10 or even 15 years younger than him.

But it's the competitive drive that sets Martin apart from his peers. And that's what Hendrick is banking on to lead Martin to finally reach the one goal he has yet to achieve in his career.

"That's what intrigued Mark and motivated me," Hendrick said. "It's a legitimate shot at the championship. He's finished second four times and I'd love to see him have an opportunity to win one."

Martin said after cutting back from full-time to part-time status after the 2006 season that he was "okay with it" if he was destined to never win a Cup championship in his life.

That kind of philosophy made his adaptation to a 24- to 26-race schedule last year and this season much more palatable. He'd still be racing, but now it would be on his own terms – picking which races he wanted to compete in and skipping those that he didn't want to take part in.

And now he has a chance to return to full-time racing, but still on his own terms.

"I told (his wife) Arlene, I'm pretty sure that the last breath I took on my death bed would be, 'I should have drove Rick's car when I had the chance,' " Martin said. "I didn't want to do that or regret that till the last breath I took."

To that, Arlene replied, "Her words were, 'If you're going to drive, this is the deal to do,' " Martin said.

For a team that has had a number of younger drivers in recent years – including Casey Mears, who Martin will replace in the No. 5 car – bringing in a veteran like Martin is a win-win.

"From the drivers and crew chiefs standpoint, when you mention his name it's immediate respect and admiration," Hendrick said. "So, it's not going to be whether he fits or not. This is going to be a great opportunity for us."

Soon-to-be teammate Jimmie Johnson echoed Hendrick's statement – even though ultimately it could be Martin challenging, and perhaps overtaking, him, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the Cup title.

But if that happens, there isn't another driver in the world Johnson would mind losing to less than Martin.

"There's a lot we can learn from Mark," Johnson said. "I'm looking forward to the relationship and getting things started there. He's an inspiration to a lot of us."

Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor for Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at


-Martin has 35 Cup wins and is the all-time leading winner in the Busch/Nationwide Series with 48 career wins.

-Between the Cup and Busch/Nationwide series, Martin has earned over $70 million in career prize money.

-Martin has won at least one race on every current Cup track except for Loudon, Pocono, Daytona, Homestead, Indianapolis and this week's host track, Joliet.

-Martin's first Cup race was April 5, 1981 at the now-defunct North Wilkesboro (N.C.) Speedway, where he started a surprising fifth but finished a disappointing 27th