By admin | November 15, 2013
By Richard Allen
Sunday’s race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway will mark the end of an era for NASCAR to some degree. With no one seemingly in any sort of hurry to sign Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Burton to a full contract for 2014, this will likely be the end of these three championship caliber drivers as full-time campaigners on the Sprint Cup circuit.
Finding three drivers who have conducted themselves better on behalf of the sport would be difficult to do.
Martin stopped racing full time in Sprint Cup back in 2006 when he left long time employer Jack Roush. However, he came back as a full timer for Hendrick Motorsports between 2009 and 2011. Since then, he has campaigned for Michael Waltrip Racing(and Stewart-Haas Racing after Tony Stewart’s injury) on a part-time basis.
Over the course of his career, Martin has compiled some impressive statistics. He has won 40 Sprint Cup races since his entry into the sport in 1981. Add to that, the Batesville, Ark. native has scored 271 top-5 and 453 top-10 finishes. He has also amassed 56 poles in that time.
All of that doesn’t even take into consideration the 49 Nationwide(Busch) Series wins Martin racked up over the course of his career.
Labonte is the only of these three greats to have won a Sprint Cup title. He achieved that feat in 2000. Along with that ultimate accomplishment, the Corpus Christi, Tex. driver has won 21 races in NASCAR’s top division along with 115 top-5 and 203 top-10 finishes. He has earned 26 poles during his career.
Among his victories, Labonte took checkered flags from three of the sport’s biggest events. In 1995, he scored his first career win in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. While driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, he won the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and the Southern 500 in Darlington during his championship effort of 2000.
Burton won 21 Sprint Cup events while driving for Roush and Richard Childress Racing. He also piled up 134 top-5 and 254 top-10 results. The Virginian has finished in the top-10 of the final standings ten times throughout his career. Two Coca-Cola 600 and one Southern 500 crown jewel wins are on the driver’s resume.
But perhaps more important than the wins and top-10s has been the way these drivers have conducted themselves on and away from the race track.
Martin is considered one of the most respected figures to ever occupy a NASCAR garage area. Other drivers have long looked up to the example he has set and have sought his counseling. Fans too have been drawn to this driver’s character and work ethic. His Twitter conversations with fans regarding work out and conditioning routines have become somewhat legendary.
While Martin came close on occasion, he was never able to win a Sprint Cup championship. However, that did not diminish his competitive nature nor his fighting spirit. Whether a champion on paper or not, his many fans will no doubt consider him so for many years to come.
Labonte was always the picture of consistency and class. Rarely was his name ever heard among those who were listed as bitter rivals of another driver or team. But still, this has been one of the sport’s longest running competitive forces. Earning most of his accolades while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing, the younger of the Labonte brothers seemed to always be in the mix for race wins and championships throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Burton has garnered so much respect among his fellow competitors that he is commonly referred to as ‘The Mayor’ due to the fact that he is often looked up to as a voice of reason from within the garage area. While acting as a very competitive driver, he has been one of the sport’s strongest advocates for safety innovations. His contributions to racing have been far reaching and will continue well beyond his driving career.
Burton, as of now, seems to be the only one of these three drivers who may be called upon to compete next season as rumor indicates he may start a handful of races for Michael Waltrip Racing.
Sunday’s race at the Homestead-Miami Speedway will likely be the final time in which these three strap into a car as a full-time NASCAR Sprint Cup driver. However, their legacies will be long lasting within the sport. And no doubt, the Hall of Fame will come calling at some point in the future.
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