Some of the 10 names in this chapter may surprise. In fact, if a few of them don't surprise you, check your routine. You're either spending way too much time studying NASCAR statistics, or you really mean it when you say, "Nothing in NASCAR surprises me any more."
The chosen drivers include a few 20-year veterans, an old moonshine runner, a couple of guys who left us all too soon, and probably the most respected man in NASCAR history. All of them played the part and fit into the appropriate category for numerous reasons. Some of them enjoyed remarkable races that rank among the biggest moments in 60 years of NASCAR racing, while others had a long ride at NASCAR's top level without ever making much of an impact.
But when listing overrated and underrated, they all stand out.
Most Overrated Driver
Martin is almost everything a race car driver should be — calculating, cautious, experienced, patient, determined, and remarkably skilled behind the wheel.
But I did say almost everything. Martin will probably enter the history books as NASCAR's perennial runner-up. He's the man who always came close but never quite reached the most cherished prizes of his profession. Many fans believe Martin is simply the ultimate example of bad racing luck.
The two things every NASCAR driver wants most in his career are a Cup championship and a Daytona 500 victory. Martin doesn't have either one, but he still has a chance to earn one or both and prove me wrong. Martin will go to Hendrick Motorsports in 2009, getting top equipment for a strong chance to win at Daytona — another shot at winning a Cup championship.
But why hasn't it already happened for someone so revered? Maybe it goes a little deeper than just bad luck.
The reason? He's just too nice a guy, a gentleman among barbarians in fire suits. Martin is the anti-Dale Earnhardt. Earnhardt never wanted to lose a race by letting some other driver off the hook; Martin never wants to win a race at another driver's expense.
Martin is known as the guy who always treats his fellow competitors with respect. He won't put someone at risk and force a driver into the wall just to gain one position in a race. He doesn't deliberately tap the rear bumper of the car in front of him to try to win a race, and everyone knows it.
Take, for example, the end of the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 1, 2008. Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards were side-by-side up front, competing for the victory. Martin was behind Edwards on the inside line before the unthinkable happened. Martin ran into the back of Edwards' car, causing Edwards to slide into Keselowski as both cars spun into the wall. Martin went on to win the race.
Had any other driver gone to Victory Lane in that situation, we would have seen one heck of a post-race show. Edwards and Keselowski would have teamed up for a two-on-one ambush on Martin that could have rivaled the infamous 1979 Daytona brawl between the Allison brothers and Cale Yarborough.
But this was Mark Martin. The thought never crossed their minds.
"I'd like to be really mad at Mark," Edwards said. "But he's a heck of a guy and has a lot of respect. I'm sure he just made a mistake."
Martin quickly apologized for causing the incident.
"I ran into the back of Carl, and I hate it," Martin said. "I didn't intend for that to happen."
Drivers say that a lot when they cause a wreck. Usually, no one believes them — but everyone believed Martin. He was driving one of two cars in the race owned by Dale Earnhardt Jr. Keselowski was driving the other one.
"We all know Mark's one of the cleanest drivers out there," Earnhardt, Jr. said. "He's taught this entire garage how to drive clean and how to drive respectfully."
Martin has always raced his rivals the right way, and maybe that cost him over the years. He has won 35 races, but the Cup championship has eluded him.
He also has never won the Daytona 500, although some people might argue that point about the 2007 finish. The final lap of that event was a microcosm of Martin's career — so close, but not quite enough.
Martin entered the 2007 Daytona 500 winless in regular-season Cup races on the 2.5-mile super speedway. He had also never won the July event and never won a Daytona 500 qualifying race. His only victory in a Cup car at Daytona came in the 1999 Bud Shootout All-Star event. But it appeared his luck would finally change under the lights on February18, 2007.
Martin was racing side by side with Kevin Harvick as they rounded Turn 4 and headed for the checkered flag. A split-second later, the demolition derby started behind them. A dozen cars were crashing, sliding, tumbling, and burning in their rear-view mirrors.
The two men up front kept the gas pedal on the floorboard, not knowing when the caution flag would fly. Harvick edged Martin by a blink — two one-hundredths of a second, to be exact. It was the closest finish since electronic scoring started and the most dramatic finish at Daytona since the three-wide show at the line 48 years earlier in the first 500. But this one ruined the fairy-tale ending. Harvick reached the line first and left Martin 0-for-23 in the Daytona 500.
"I knew I was going to be the bad guy at the end with Mark leading," Harvick said. "But we kept the pedal down and hoped for the best."
Almost everyone watching the race wanted to see one of NASCAR's favorite sons finally get the dream moment he deserved. Some of them believe it didn't happen because NASCAR broke its own rule. The field is frozen when the caution is thrown. Had that happened at the start of the wreck, many people believe Martin was slightly ahead at that moment and would have been declared the winner.
That depends on when the yellow light actually would have come on. As it turns out, it didn't matter. NASCAR waited until Harvick and Martin crossed the line before throwing the caution.
"I accepted the result about 10 seconds after we crossed the start/finish line," Martin said a week later. "That's how long it took me to get my arms around it. I never gave a thought to the controversy or what could have been. The caution could have come out at a time when I wasn't ahead. Delaying the caution was the right call. It's the last 500 yards on the Daytona 500. Let the leaders decide who wins it." They did, and Martin came up short again. It was a snapshot of his entire career.
Martin was the runner-up to the championship four times over a 13-season span from 1990 to 2002. The one that hurt the most was the first one. Martin lost the title to Earnhardt by only 26 points. But the part that eats at all his fans is the 46-point penalty he received during that season.
NASCAR officials ruled Martin's No. 6 Ford had an illegal part in the engine after his victory at Richmond, Virginia, in the second race of the season. The part was an unapproved carburetor spacer that was half an inch too thick.
Team owner Jack Roush vehemently argued that the part was simply a mistake during the assembly process, and it was clear the spacer provided no performance advantage. NASCAR officials try not to make judgment calls on intent. The part was illegal. That's all that mattered.
No one realized at the time that those docked points would make a difference in which driver won the Cup title. Martin's followers claim he would have won the championship by 20 points had NASCAR not imposed the penalty. Those arguments are flawed because no one can say how things would have unfolded if Martin wasn't penalized. The season had just begun.
It's the same principle as baseball scoring where you can't assume a double play. Would both drivers have raced exactly the same the rest of the way? Would both teams have set up the cars the same? Would both have elected to pit at the exact same moment for each stop in each race down the stretch?
No one can know. Here's what we do know looking at the stats:
Earnhardt won nine races, including three of the last nine.
Martin won three, and only one in the last 10.
Both men had 23 top-10 finishes in 29 races, but Earnhardt had two more top-5 finishes (18 to 16).
Statistically speaking, the deserving man won the title.
Martin's last runner-up year also involved a penalty. He was docked 25 points for an unapproved left front spring after finishing second at Rockingham, North Carolina, two weeks before the season ended.
This time, the penalty wasn't the difference. Tony Stewart won the championship by 38 markers. Stewart had three victories that year; Martin had one. Martin had one more top-10 finish (22 to 21) but Stewart had three more top-5 finishes (15 to 12). Again, the man who ran close to the front more times won the title.
The other two times Martin was the Cup runner-up were complete blow outs, so much so that it's wrong to say he was a serious challenger for the championship. Earnhardt finished 444 points ahead of Martin in 1994 and Jeff Gordon was 364 points ahead of Martin at the end of 1998.
Is Martin the best driver never to win a Cup title? Absolutely, but that doesn't make him one of the best ever, at least not in the top 10. Junior Johnson is the only driver with more career victories (50) than Martin who didn't win a championship, but no one considers Johnson a driver who ranks with the best of the best. Many people see Martin in that light.
Some fans argue that Martin hasn't won a championship because he has never had the best equipment or the best team. They say his five titles in the prestigious International Race of Champions series prove it. Martin out- raced the All-Stars from other leagues in the annual four-race series which pitted drivers in identically prepared sports cars.
What if Martin had raced a Chevrolet all those Cup years instead of a Ford? From 1990 through 2007, Chevy drivers won 12 of 18 Cup championships. Ford won four. However, two of those four titles were won by Martin's teammates at Roush Racing — Matt Kenseth in 2003 and Kurt Busch in 2004. Those were the seasons after Martin's last runner- up finish, so Roush obviously had the cars and personnel to get the job done.
Kenseth and Busch managed to do just a little more to end up on top. In other words, they did whatever it took. But something separated Martin from that logic. Maybe he lacked the killer instinct, or perhaps he just wasn't hungry enough. No one would say that about Tony Stewart or Dale Earnhardt Sr. or even Jimmie Johnson.
The 2007 season was an example of Martin doing things his way. He left Roush's team after 2006 with the intent of racing a partial schedule in the No. 01 Chevrolet for Ginn Racing. But his near-victory at Daytona provided the momentum for his best start in years. Martin posted top-5 finishes in the first three events, and he finished 10 in the fourth race at Atlanta. He was on top of the standings. Many people assumed he would abandon the part-time plan and continue to compete in every event.
At 48 years old, maybe he had another shot at a championship ring. What would Dan Marino, Warren Moon, Karl Malone, or Tony Gwynn give for one last shot at a championship? But Martin had no desire to chase the title again — not at that point, anyway. He stuck to his plan and skipped the next event at Bristol, Tennessee. Sure, it was early. Odds are it wouldn't have worked out, but Martin took a pass at an opportunity, however remote, to change his legacy.
Two years later, he will try it again at age 50. But it wasn't the top of his priority list at the time. Martin opted to spend more time with his family, as he had promised — an honorable decision by an honorable man. It's how he has lived his life. It's how he has raced. Martin never played rough, and that cost him.
One other racer with a similar driving technique fared better. Terry Labonte, who rarely got gorilla with his competitors, won two championships. He led the series in top-5 finishes (17) when he won his first championship for Billy Hagan, out-racing better teams and driving legends such as Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison.
Labonte's second championship 12 years later came with experience and consistency. Teammate Gordon had 10 victories and Labonte had two, but Labonte won the title by staying out of trouble. He finished 16 or better in all but six events, and only once did he finish worse than 26.
Labonte found a way to get it done, whatever it took. Martin never quite got the memo. He never found a way to grab the brass ring, partly because he wouldn't reach for it at someone else's expense. It just wasn't his style, and that's not a bad thing.
NASCAR should add an annual sportsmanship trophy and name it after Martin. The Mark Martin Sportsmanship Award to honor the driver who exemplifies class, dignity, and fairness on the track. Who he is as a person, along with his driving accomplishments, guarantees Martin a spot in the new NASCAR Hall of Fame at some point during the next decade.
Fans and drivers respect Martin because of his character on and off the track. But the stats don't live up to how high some people place him in the NASCAR hierarchy. For example, entering the 2008 season, Martin's winning percentage is right at 5 percent. Among drivers with 100 or more career starts, that ranks 44. It might be surprising to learn a few of the names who rank ahead of Mark on that list — Dale Earnhardt Jr., Cotton Owens, and Ryan Newman.
Among the top 20 in career victories, Martin is one of only three who didn't win a Cup title. Junior Johnson is one and Fireball Roberts is the other. Both men had a winning percentage more than three times higher than Martin. Johnson's winning percentage was 15.92 percent, while Roberts' was 15.38 percent.
Drivers can't be judged simply by races won. Dick Hutcherson ranks 11 in all-time winning percentage (13.59 percent), but no one would consider him the 11 best driver in NASCAR history. Drivers can be judged on whether or not they made the most of every opportunity to win races and championships. On that note, Martin fell a little short.
The Rest of the Top Five
2. GEOFFREY BODINE
It was just Geoff when he won the Daytona 500 in 1986, but Bodine opted for a more formal listing of his first name many years later. Whatever you call him, the eldest of the Bodine brothers was the best of the bunch, but not quite as good as some people believe.
Improving his position on the track wasn't a Bodine trait. In 21 of his 25 seasons, Bodine's finishing spot was worse than his starting position. That's not unusual. Drivers with good equipment who start races near the front often have a finishing average worse than where they started.
That stat really stands out for Bodine. His average finishing position was more than five spots worse than his starting spot in 14 seasons. Three years it was more than 10 spots in the negative. For his career, Bodine's average starting spot was 13.8. His average finishing spot was 18.4. Bodine won 18 races in 570 starts and had 100 top-5 finishes, which is certainly deserving of praise. But he moved backward on the grid too many times.
Here's one key thing in his favor: The man is one hell of a bobsled designer.
3. KEN SCHRADER
This is a much different type of overrated than Martin or Bodine. Those men were winning drivers who many people rank with the best of all time, although that idea seems a little flawed. No one would claim Schrader ranks with the best of all time, but he managed to race full time in Cup for 22 seasons without anyone seeming to care that he rarely ran up front.
Schrader won four times between 1988 and 1991. Yet he raced full time for the next 15 years without winning again. He raced more than eight seasons without posting a top-5 finish. His career winning percentage is 0.55 percent with four wins in 717 starts through the 2007 season.
How does a guy race that long without showing positive results? First, he competed in a lot of bad equipment. Schrader is part of the netherworld of NASCAR — drivers who have long careers but usually run near the back of the pack.
If you're a good guy, show some personality, are good with sponsors, and rarely tear up equipment, you can make a career out of racing at the back. Schrader is the quintessential example. He has raced in all or part of 24 seasons through 2007. If you race a quarter of a century and win in only four of 717 races, you have to be overrated.
4. JEFF GREEN
At least Ken Schrader has won a race. Green can't make that claim. In 265 Cup starts through the 2007 season, Green has yet to go to Victory Lane. Only five times has he finished in the top 5 and only 16 times in the top 10.
Look at it like this: 265 starts are more than seven full seasons of racing. That means Green averaged less than one top 5 per season and about two top-10 finishes per season. Even factoring in some sorry equipment, those are telling numbers. Want a few more? In those 265 starts, Green has led a total of 265 laps, or one lap per start. That doesn't sound so bad, does it?
Well, here's a little comparison using Kurt Busch, a driver with about the Well, here's a little comparison using Kurt Busch, a driver with about the same number of starts. In 256 Cup starts through 2007, Busch led 4,633 laps, or 18 times as many as Green.