Mark Martin: An appreciation, if this is the last time

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Mark Martin is NASCAR’s version of Brett Favre. Legendary, beloved, but always questioning when will be the right time to hang up his helmet.

Sure, he hasn’t been as polarizing, especially to one particular fan base.

But he has made a habit for the last decade of asking “Will I?” or “Won’t I?” about his racing in NASCAR for the following year.

Martin said last week that while he won’t use the r-word – retirement – he hasn’t accepted any deals to race in NASCAR in 2014.

Already we have one of his former owners questioning that statement. Rick Hendrick said this weekend at Phoenix “I bet he comes back,” in a story posted to AZCentral.com.

And the reasons are obvious. Even at 54, and he’ll be 55 in January, Martin remains one of NASCAR’s strongest, most motivated, and most popular individuals.

Beyond his driving, his workout routine is legendary; his love of good rap music appreciated by fans both casual and hardcore.

And on-track, he’s still at the top of the list when it comes to filling in, too. For 10 years, Martin has wrestled with the question of whether to give it up entirely, but teams have consistently sought his services.

He nearly won the 2007 Daytona 500 with unheralded Ginn Racing, missing out to Kevin Harvick by mere inches.

In his first full season in three years, in 2009, Martin won five races and finished second in the championship only behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson. It was his best season in 11 years.

Just this year, Michael Waltrip Racing, Joe Gibbs Racing and Stewart-Haas Racing have called on Martin to provide a leadership role or fill the seat when one of their respective big names has got hurt.

Brian Vickers’ comeback to Cup for 2014 at MWR came with paying tribute to Martin’s mentoring. Tony Stewart – himself never one to dole out too many platitudes to his competitors – is in awe of what Martin’s been able to accomplish, and the perfect choice to fill in due to his own injuries.

Statistically, Martin’s 2013 will go down as one of his least successful in 31 years and more than 880 Cup starts. He’ll have started 28 of 36 races, with one top-five, five top-10s (unless he finishes well Sunday), and finished outside the top-25 in the points standings.

But stats, lately, don’t matter with Martin as much as what he means to the sport.

He’ll go down in history as one of the best drivers to have ever raced in NASCAR, even though he’s never won a championship, or a Daytona 500.

He enjoys a rare level of admiration and respect among his peers. He’s continued to press on in an era where younger drivers have taken over the sport in the last 10 years or so, and are poised to do so even more in the next 5-10 years.

His outpouring of support to the fans – rare did an interview pass when he didn’t take an opportunity to thank them – has been returned in spades. If it wasn’t for Bill Elliott or Dale Earnhardt Jr. hogging it, you can bet Mark Martin would have won multiple “Most Popular Driver” awards.

And on Sunday, he plans to hang it up after one last round of 400 miles.

Maybe.

And with Mark, it couldn’t be done any other way.

Hartley happy with ‘big progression’ on first day with Toro Rosso

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With 69 laps completed (28 in free practice one and 41 in free practice two) and respectable lap times in both sessions, Brendon Hartley quickly acclimated to a modern day Formula 1 chassis in his first run with Scuderia Toro Rosso in Friday practice for the United States Grand Prix.

The Porsche factory driver has been drafted into the team following a convoluted series of musical chairs that sees Daniil Kvyat back after a two-race absence, Carlos Sainz Jr. now at Renault and Pierre Gasly racing at the Super Formula season finale in Suzuka.

Over the time in the car today, Hartley experienced changeable conditions in FP1 before a more normal FP2, and discovered the new F1 cockpit after a day learning in the garage yesterday.

“A steep learning curve today! It all went pretty smoothly and I kept the car on track without making too many mistakes, so I’m quite happy,” the New Zealander reflected at day’s end.

“I didn’t really know what to expect from today because I just had so much to learn! I think I made quite a big progression throughout the day.

“The biggest difference from what I’m used to is the high-speed grip, it’s incredible here in Formula 1…it was quite an eye-opener! Another challenge are the tires, which are also quite different to what I’m used to. On the other hand, the long-run looks quite positive and I did a good job managing the tires there – the biggest thing I need to work on now is the new tire pace, and I’ll get another crack at it tomorrow morning before qualifying.

“All in all, I’d say it’s all coming together. We’ll now work hard and go through plenty of data tonight and hopefully I’ll make another step forward tomorrow.”

His best lap was 1.1 seconds up on Friday driver Sean Gelael, the Indonesian Formula 2 driver, in FP1 (1:39.267 to 1:40.406, good enough for 14th) and 1.1 seconds off the returning Kvyat in FP2 (1:37.987 to 1:36.761, good enough for 17th). Interestingly, the Gelael/Hartley combination in FP1 marked the second time in three races that Toro Rosso had a pair of drivers in its cars without a single Grand Prix start between them – Gasly’s debut at Malaysia was the other, when he and Gelael were in in FP1.

Coming into Friday’s running, Hartley said he was more ready for this opportunity now than he had been as a teenager. He admitted he’d called Red Bull’s Helmut Marko in the wake of Porsche’s LMP1 withdrawal news earlier this year to say he was game for any chance that might come.

“I’m a lot stronger than I was back then, basically. I wasn’t ready at 18 years old. I like to think I’m ready now,” he said.

“I haven’t driven a single-seater since 2012, but I like to think that Porsche LMP1 has hopefully prepared me well.”

As for the rest of his weekend, it’s been made more complicated by Hartley being assessed a 25-spot grid penalty, even though Hartley had done nothing to accrue the penalties.

The roundabout sequence of driver changes at Toro Rosso saw Gasly replace Kvyat, Kvyat replace Sainz, and now Hartley replace Gasly, as is outlined by NBCSN pit reporter Will Buxton below.