As a driver in any series, you never know when your last win is, and for older drivers, that fear grows ever closer with each passing race. Dale Sr. probably did not know the 2000 Winston 500 would be his last win. Jeff Gordon probably did not know the 2015 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 would be his last win. However, a driver’s last win can be used to define a driver’s whole career. In other words, one race could be the living definition of who a driver is and the legacy they leave behind. Such is the case of our topic today on “That Time in NASCAR History”, the 2009 Sylvania 300 or Mark Martin’s last win.
Mark Martin had a very successful career in NASCAR, with 96 wins in NASCAR’s top three divisions (40 in Cup, 49 in Xfinity, and 7 in Trucks). Many fans of Martin and NASCAR, in general, consider him to be the best driver never to win a championship, though he did come close on multiple occasions: 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, and 2009. 2009 is the year we are focusing on, but to understand how Mark got to this point, we need to look at 2005-2008. Mark wished to retire after 2005 but signed a deal with Jack Roush for a one-year deal so Jack could find a replacement. After 2006, Mark would fall back to a part-time role with Ginn Racing (which may be a story for a future article). Mark would finish second in the Daytona 500 that year, but that was it. 2008 would be the same as he would drive part-time with Dale Earnhardt Incorporated (Ginn had merged with DEI the previous year just before Indianapolis). 2009 was not in the cards for Martin, but a confident Mr. Hendrick came calling with a deal to have Mark in the organization’s five-car, the flagship car. Mark signed the dotted line and would drive for Hendrick Motorsports for 2009. His year would get off to a slow start, but he would find himself clicking off wins. The first being at Phoenix, then Darlington, a fuel mileage race at Michigan, and Chicagoland. Going into the Chase, he would lead the points.
New Hampshire Motor Speedway would play host to the first round of the Chase; although leading the Chase, Martin would start fourteenth. His car would be worked on all race long, trying to find the sweet spot. A few key drivers are Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, and Denny Hamlin. These guys would run up front all day and be Mark’s competition. Montoya would dominate the first parts of the race, with Hamlin and Johnson knocking around the top ten. Martin would take advantage of cautions to make pit stops and adjust the car. It would take a while, but on lap 204, Mark would take the lead, and the rest of the race would culminate Mark Martin’s career. Around lap 272, Mark would regain the lead and prove that he had the car to beat, all he needed was the race to remain green, and he would win, but true to his career, Martin would have to fight for the win. Cautions are as follows: lap 277-282, debris turn 3, lap 284-287, accident involving Dale Jr and David Reutimann, lap 295-297, spin in turn four involving A.J Almendinger and Marcos Ambrose: Martin needed the field to spread out to make the win come easy, but cautions would keep the area together. However, in true Mark Martin fashion, he was not going to let this win slip away easily.
The last restart would see Martin start on the outside, with help from teammate Jimmie Johnson, with Juan Pablo Montoya on the inside with help from Denny Hamlin. With three laps to go, Martin battles hard on the outside and stays with Montoya, and Martin would clear Montoya off of turn four. Montoya and Hamlin’s battle was hard for two laps, letting Martin jump out to a good lead. Martin leads off of two with no caution. Martin goes into three with no caution. One lap to go, A.J Almendinger spins off turn four and is sitting in the front stretch with no caution. Martin finally comes off of turn four to see a smoke screen on the front stretch, and NASCAR finally throws the caution, freezing the field, giving Martin the win, the fifth and last win of the 2009 season and the last win of a, at the time, 27-year long career.
Remember what I said earlier? Do last wins usually define a driver’s career? Mark’s career was full of the highest highs and lowest lows. He hardly ever had anything go his way. He had to fight, tooth and nail, to have the career he had. His last win defines his career. He was starting in the mid-field with a sluggish handling car, tweaking and finding the sweet spot, getting to the front through smart strategy, and having everything and the kitchen sink thrown at him to prevent him from winning. His last win was not going to be served to him on a silver platter, he had to fight for his meal, and in this case, he won the fight. Even though he never won a Daytona 500 or a championship, Mark Martin was a true talent during his time. Despite his setbacks, disappointment, an ever-changing NASCAR, and his age, it did not matter. Mark knew how to get in a car and win against the odds. For this reason, Mark Martin is the best NASCAR driver, never to win a championship.