Mark Martin, Stock Cars, Class of 2015
It is generally accepted that Mark Martin was NASCAR's all-time best driver without a championship on his resume. He was Sprint Cup runner-up five times – once by 26 points, another by 38 – and never let the lack of a title define him. "Let me tell you something," he once told a group of reporters. "I've done more in my racing career than I ever expected. And I mean EVER expected! I'll never look back and regret what didn't happen. Instead, I'll look back and remember what DID happen."
For almost 25 years the Arkansas native was considered one of stock car racing's best talents. More importantly, he was deeply respected in the garage for his integrity, professionalism, sportsmanship and how he handled adversity. During an era when NASCAR didn't have nearly enough of them, Martin was a no-nonsense, hard-nosed, hands-on RACER who came up the hard way and never let success change the man he was. He remains one of the sport's most revered figures.
"The fact that he didn't win a championship in no way takes away from his career and this honor," said three-time NASCAR champion Darrell Waltrip, a 2003 Motorsports Hall of Fame of America inductee and member of its Board of Trustees. "This Hall is for great drivers – exceptionally great drivers – across all disciplines of the sport. Every racer worth his salt is here, and Mark is absolutely deserving, championship or not."
Martin made his NASCAR debut in 1981, an ill-fated effort that few modern-day fans even remember. He was back in 1986 and 1987 with a similar lack of success. By the time he returned in 1988 with rookie owner Jack Roush, he had overcome personal issues while building an impressive short-track resume. Over the next 19 years he and Roush combined for 39 poles and 35 Cup victories. Just as impressively, they were top 10 in points 16 times, including four of Martin's five career runner-up finishes.
All told, he made 882 Cup starts for 13 owners, including Roush, Dale Earnhardt Inc., Rick Hendrick, Michael Waltrip and Tony Stewart.
Long-time NASCAR star and former champion Matt Kenseth was a teammate at Roush Fenway Racing. "Mark was a great teammate and a great racer," said Kenseth. "He was a mentor who helped move me to Cup, someone who always gave me good advice both on and off the track."
Carl Edwards, another teammate at Roush Fenway, called Martin "the very best kind" of teammate. "He took a lot of time with me," said Edwards, "and to this day he's still a guy I can call and talk to about anything. He helped me a lot, and sometimes it was a tough love sort of deal. He hit me at Bristol one night – almost wrecked me – so I called him on Monday and asked what was up. He said, 'Well, you hit me first, so I thought that's just how you wanted to race.' I said, 'Hey, I'd like to start over with you' and he said, 'Sure, that's fine, that's cool. No problem. However you want to race is how we'll race.' And that was it.
"I think I can speak for everyone in the sport in saying we think of Mark as a champion even if he doesn't have that big trophy to show for it."