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Disrespect of Martin disgusting

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When the history of NASCAR is rewritten to include its current crop of stars, there is little doubt that Mark Martin will go down as one of the most-beloved racers in the sport's history.

At present, however, the diminutive Arkansan seems a rather maligned individual for remaining a Sprint Cup driver past the age of 50 and for remaining in the #5 Chevrolet through the duration of his contract rather than stepping aside for Kasey Kahne.

The disrespect of a man widely accepted as the greatest racer in NASCAR to never win a championship, with forty career victories and five runner-up finishes in the points race, is troubling and, in fact, a little disgusting.

First, an analyzation of facts: Mark Martin has never lied about retiring. At no point has Mark Martin ever said he was going to retire from Sprint Cup racing.

He stated in late 2004 that he would step aside from full-time driving after the 2005 season but would run a partial schedule while competing full-time in what was then the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.

There, of course, was the well-documented "Salute to You" tour, with accompanying merchandise and accolades abound. Fox Sports even presented Martin and his retiring contemporary Rusty Wallace with engraved rocking chairs prior to their final telecast of the 2005 season at Sonoma.

Then, things became complicated, and Mark's loyalty to the man who'd given him his big break in 1988 came into play.

Having decided by midway through 2005 that Martin's heir apparent - Todd Kluever, a midwestern short-tracker in the mold of Martin and Matt Kenseth - would not be ready for the '06 campaign, leaving the #6 car in limbo, Jack Roush succeeded in putting off Martin's semi-retirement for a year.

By the end of 2006, without part-time options available with Roush, moved on to Ginn Racing to drive their #01 Chevrolet for most of the 2007 schedule, while rookie Regan Smith would drive the balance of the schedule.

After nearly winning the Daytona 500 and leading the points through four races, Martin stuck to his word and sat out the fifth and sixth events of the year at Bristol and Martinsville. For the remainder of the season, he stuck to his schedule and continued to do so in 2008, now with Dale Earnhardt, Inc. courtesy of some owners points wheeling and dealing in July 2007.

As he was looking for a home for 2009, Mark Martin exercised his right as an American, as a human being, and changed his mind about semi-retirement. The opportunity to drive one of Rick Hendrick's Chevrolets too good to refuse, Martin agreed to return to the rigors of full-time Sprint Cup racing.

In the face of the criticism of his decision to return, Martin responded with one of his best seasons ever: five wins and his fifth second-place finish in the final standings.

He remained in Hendrick's #5 Chevrolet for 2010 and was under contract for 2011, after which he would likely return to part-time racing.

And yet, after pouring his heart and soul into NASCAR racing for almost three decades and being driven nearly to his breaking point on more than one occasion, again Martin became the man everyone wanted to push aside after Hendrick announced the signing of Kasey Kahne for 2012.

The foolish cries for Martin to be effectively kicked to the curb by Hendrick or for Mark to "do the right thing" and step aside in favor of Kahne were finally quieted for good earlier this week when Kahne officially announced he was joining Team Red Bull for the 2011 season.

Still, it is unlikely that a man who wears his heart on his sleeve quite like Martin will be too quick to forget just the latest case of disrespect towards him. Just as he shouldn't be.

Martin has toiled in NASCAR's Cup ranks for the better part of three decades, once being driven out nearly penniless as his family operation had to shutter its doors. He overcame severe alcoholism, became a model of fitness not just for racers but for any man, and showed extraordinary heart as he suffered through immense professional defeat and personal loss - none greater than in August of 1998, when his father, step-mother, and stepsister died in a plane crash as Martin was racing in Watkins Glen. Mark buried his family members, then dedicated his "losing effort" to them after failing to secure the win at Michigan that weekend..

Unlike drivers such as Darrell Waltrip and Dale Jarrett - NASCAR greats who perhaps stuck around a little too long, becoming backmarkers and suffering DNQs - Mark remains competitive in his twilight years. After Sunday's Heluva Good! at the Glen, he is in the Chase for the Championship, and if he succeeds in making NASCAR's 10-race playoff, he would join Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin as the only drivers to qualify for the Chase in each of their full seasons under the points system.

Mark Martin has given more to the sport of auto racing than most of his contemporaries, and there is a strong argument that he has gotten much less than his fair share in return. The lack of respect amongst fans and reporters - many of whom developed their interest in auto racing well into Martin's career and haven't witnessed his full impact on the sport - is perhaps the greatest injustice of all.

Who are they to tell him he should retire? Who are they to tell him that he has somehow forfeited his God-given right to change his mind and chase glory one more time or two more times or as many times as he pleases? It is disgusting to consider the level of animosity held towards Martin simply because of his desire to compete while he is still able to compete.

If Mark ever complains about all of his, he will do so respectfully, because that is Mark Martin's way. He takes criticism, justified or not, like a man and responds accordingly. In terms of inner-stature, he stands much taller than his listed height of 5'6.

Undoubtedly a champion whether he has the trophy and is listed as such in the record books or not, he has more than earned his right to do whatever he pleases and to be respected as one of the greatest racers of all-time, one who has shown more guts and more heart in one lifetime than some drivers would in two or three.