Martin flags down some peace Stealing Gordon show brings win for late dad

August 24, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- The Big Deal at Bristol Motor Speedway was to be Jeff Gordon, who was going for a modern-day record of five straight Winston Cup victories. But it was Mark Martin who stole the show and the hearts of the more than 135,000 race fans who packed the stands surrounding the tiny, half-mile oval.

For weeks now, Martin has been playing an extended engagement of second fiddle to Gordon. It seemed to be NASCAR's version of the Triple Crown in which Alydar made a game effort but finished second-best to Affirmed.

Martin had run second four of the past five weeks and should have won the week before in Michigan, where he finished fourth after a late caution flag put Gordon out front for victory.

Martin wanted that Michigan victory, not so much for himself, but for his father, Julian, who had been killed in a plane crash the week before with Martin's stepmother and stepsister. Not getting it, he came here with a still-heavy heart and a lot of desire.

"I wanted so badly to do this last week," Martin said late Saturday night after beating Jeff Burton to the finish line by 2.185 seconds in the Goody's Headache Powder 500 and relegating Gordon to a fifth-place finish. "I believe in my heart it would have helped me not experience the crash [of emotions] that I experienced [a week ago] Sunday afternoon, Sunday night and Monday morning. This helps me because I was so devastated."

Martin found out about the death of his father Sunday night, Aug. 9, spent the next Monday and Tuesday dealing with all the details that accompany the loss of a family member and feeling like "I had stuck my finger in an electrical socket." That Wednesday, he buried his dad. The next day, he left for that race in Michigan.

There, he had cameras in his face, reporters all around and no privacy to grieve. It wasn't until Aug. 16, after losing to Gordon, that he finally climbed into his own airplane with his wife and son and came to terms with his loss.

This past weekend, Martin was still pale and sad, but when he pulled his car into victory lane, the smile that lighted his face was nearly as bright as the hundreds of flashbulbs that popped throughout the wildly cheering crowd.

"The first thing on my mind when I got out of that car was that I wanted to thank all these people for their support and their sympathy," Martin said. "It meant an awful lot to my family, and it's meant a lot to me. You know, my relationship with my dad goes way beyond father and son. My dad was fun, and I will miss having fun with him.

"But right now, this just feels like a win. It feels like I'm moving on. You know, three weeks prior to my dad's accident, he left some instructions with his right-hand man at the trucking company, that if anything ever happened to him for him [his assistant] to keep trucking and for me not to miss a race on account of him and go win that championship.

"I know what we're up against trying to race against Jeff Gordon, Ray Evernham and that race team. And I know that it may turn out like Michigan, but this is a little baby step toward that."

Gordon took the loss of his streak in stride. He had said before the race that winning five straight didn't matter to him, that his focus is on winning another Winston Cup title. After seeing Martin, Burton, Rusty Wallace and Dale Jarrett finish ahead of him and holding off Dale Earnhardt from behind, Gordon sounded satisfied.

"We got fifth," he said. "Does that count for anything? I've been fighting a little bit of a cold the last couple of days and I'm beat. I was fighting the car through the whole race, and I wasn't even sure I could go 500 laps. So I think we were a championship team out there."

Martin chopped 30 points off Gordon's points lead and closed within 67. And while he looked physically and mentally exhausted as he sat slumped, munching potato chips long after the race, Martin took the time to speak generously of Gordon, whose streak he stopped at four to preserve the tie among seven drivers, including himself, in the modern era.

"A bunch of us have won four straight," Martin said. "Jeff isn't the only one, but it's an incredible feat. I think Jeff Gordon is, undoubtedly, one of the greatest race car drivers to ever sit down in a car. You can't argue with the results, and I can't compete with his record.

"In a lot of ways, I'm a Jeff Gordon fan. I approve of him, the way he lives his life, the way he drives, the way he conducts himself and everything else. If the fans that don't like Jeff Gordon, if they think they don't like him, boy, you can just imagine what a different personality could be in that same situation. He's a fine fellow, and it hurts me to hear him booed because he's good.

"I guess I've been fortunate enough to have success, but not so much that a large number of people dislike me."

Pub Date: 8/24/98

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