Thursday, March 9, 2017

5/9/81: Mark Martin, Nashville, and one of NASCAR’s longest streaks without a last-place finish

PHOTO: Rubbin's Racin' Forums
On May 9, 1981, Mark Martin picked up the 1st last-place finish of his NASCAR Winston Cup Series career in the Melling Tool 420 at the Nashville Speedway when his #02 Ams Oil / Prototype Pontiac fell out with a busted cam after 2 of 420 laps.  The finish came in Martin’s second career start.

One month before the Nashville race, Martin made his NASCAR debut at North Wilkesboro Speedway.  The three-time and defending champion of the American Speed Association (ASA), Martin had already made a name for himself by the time he climbed aboard the Pontiac owned by Bud Reeder, who was also making his debut as an owner.  Right after scoring ASA’s Rookie of the Year in 1977, Martin had won three consecutive titles, and in ’81 looked to transition into Winston Cup by driving the short tracks.  The car carried the same orange-and-white paint scheme as Martin’s ASA ride, the number changed from #2 to #02.

At Wilkesboro, Martin surprised early, qualifying 5th in the 31-car field, but rear end trouble knocked him out after 166 laps, leaving him 27th.  Much like Jeff Gordon’s debut at Atlanta in 1992, this was a changing of the guard of sorts.  In the same race, Richard Petty took the checkered flag, his 15th and final at North Wilkesboro.

Nashville, next on Martin’s schedule, began with just as much promise: he qualified 6th in the 27-car field, trailing only Ricky Rudd, Mike Alexander, Benny Parsons, Morgan Shepherd, and Darrell Waltrip.  Petty lined up the next row back in 7th.  Starting last that day was owner-driver Cecil Gordon in his unsponsored #24 Gordon Racing Pontiac.  Gordon, who claimed his second LASTCAR title that season, had climbed from 36th to 23rd in points, and was driving a Pontiac for the first time that year.  He held the spot for a brief time, as Martin’s car broke down under green, securing him his first last-place finish.

Finishing 26th that day was Alabama driver Charlie Chamblee, who was making his second and final Cup start.  Chamblee was driving a second Broadway Motors Pontiac owned by another owner-driver, Jimmy Means, the #52 decals swapped around to make a #25.  Chamblee exited after 10 laps with oil pressure as the listed cause.  The next retiree was veteran short tracker Jody Ridley in Junie Donlavey’s #90 Truxmore / Sunny King Ford.  As it happened, a much better day wasn’t far away – just eight days later, Ridley took the checkered flag in the Mason-Dixon 500 at Dover, Ridley’s first win in his 55th start.  It also turned out to be Donlavey’s first – and only – Cup victory, the highlight of a career that dated back to 1950.

24th that day went to Lake Speed, just in his second season on the tour, his #66 Pontiac out with alternator issues.  This turned out to be the only Cup start for one Harry Dinwiddie as a car owner.  One year earlier, the Tennessee-born Dinwiddie made his only Cup start at Talladega for 23rd-place D.K. Ulrich (who Martin would also drive for in 1983), coming home a strong 12th in the Talladega 500.  Dinwiddie’s own attempt as an owner-driver during the 1981 Daytona 500, driving the #49 Pabst Blue Ribbon Pontiac, ended with a hard crash off Turn 4 during Race 2 of the UNO Twin 125-mile qualifiers.

Martin’s last-place finish at Nashville was a turning point in many ways.  His next time out in July’s return to Nashville handed him his first of 56 career poles, followed by another at Richmond.  His first Top 5 came during a grueling afternoon in Martinsville that September, a 3rd behind Darrell Waltrip and Harry Gant.  Following a solid 1982 where he ranked 14th in points, Martin and Reeder parted ways, and the Arkansas driver would travel from team to team, looking to take his career to the next level.  A return to ASA for another title in 1986, then a decision to unite with Jack Roush in 1988 on a new Cup Series team, laid the groundwork for 96 combined NASCAR victories in a Hall of Fame career that lasted through 2013.

Another measure of Martin’s success is how long it took for him to finish last after that day in Nashville.  It wasn’t until April 14, 1996 that he trailed another Cup Series race, and even when his #6 Valvoline Ford trailed the First Union 400 at North Wilkesboro that day, he still finished under power, just 45 laps behind race winner Terry Labonte.  This streak of 14 years, 11 months, and 5 days covered 440 races, just 89 races less than Jimmie Johnson’s streak of 529 before his first 40th-place run last August at Watkins Glen.

As of this writing, Martin’s streak has only been eclipsed by Joe Ruttman, whose “start-and-park” effort at Rockingham in 2004 came 15 years, 6 months, and 22 days after his #31 Slender You Figure Salons Oldsmobile trailed at Talladega on July 31, 1988, 494 races previous.  Even then, Ruttman had been off the tour for eight of those seasons while Martin had for only two.

*This marked one of only three occasions where a cam was credited as the reason a Cup Series driver finished last.  The first was May 4, 1980, when Darrell Waltrip’s #88 Gatorade Oldsmobile fell out after 4 laps of the Winston 500 at Talladega.  The other was August 16, 1981, when Dick May’s #19 Belden Asphalt Buick fell out after 4 laps of the Champion Spark Plug 400 at Michigan.
*This marked the first last-place finish for #02 in a Cup race at Nashville, and the first in a Cup race since April 15, 1971, when Jimmy Crawford’s Crawford Racing 1969 Plymouth had ignition issues after 1 lap of the Maryville 200 at the Smoky Mountain (Tennessee) Raceway.  The number has finished last 14 other times, most recently on November 21, 2004, when Hermie Sadler’s Drive for Diversity / Sam Bass Chevrolet wrecked on the opening lap of the season finale, the Ford 400 at Homestead.

27) #02-Mark Martin / 2 laps / cam
26) #25-Charlie Chamblee / 10 laps / oil pressure
25) #90-Jody Ridley / 116 laps / engine
24) #66-Lake Speed / 125 laps / alternator
23) #40-D.K. Ulrich / 200 laps / engine

Waid, Steve. “Driving career over, maybe, Mark Martin has place in NASCAR lore,” Motorsports Unplugged, December 28, 2013.

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