By: Adam Niemeyer
SPARTA, KY (FOX19)—There might be no more respected driver in the NASCAR garage than 52 year old Mark Martin. The Batesville, Ark., native rarely makes enemies on the track, and is always willing to give younger drivers advice.
During the season opening Daytona 500, drivers had to pick partners to draft with. Mark Martin, a member of Hendrick Motorsports, didn't team up with Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Jimmie Johnson, his teammates, but rather with 29 year old A.J. Allmendinger.
Allmendinger could only think of one word to sum up working with the best NASCAR driver to have never won a Sprint Cup title*: Respect.
"I respect Mark so much and he's just been so kind to me since I came into the sport," Allmendinger said on Wednesday at Kentucky Speedway.
Allmendinger has fond memories of the first time he met Martin in 2006.
Martin, who was in his final season at Roush Racing, was standing on pit road before the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series New Hampshire 200. Allmendinger wanted to chat before strapping into his truck.
"I came up to him we were talking a little bit and I introduced myself," Allmendinger said, reminiscing. "And it surprised me because he's like, 'Yeah man, you just won the Champ Car race last week. I've been watching you ever since you came up through Toyota Atlantics.' I was like, 'What are talking about? You're Mark Martin!'"
That's just the kind of man Martin is. When he was asked in 2009 about whether or not he followed the run of Tom Watson in the British Open, Martin said, "I did hear peripherally. It's not on my radar screen…if it doesn't have wheels on it, I don't know much [about it]."
Allmendinger finished 13th in that truck series race, three spots behind Martin. As the former open-wheel star learned the ropes of the Sprint Cup Series, he realized how important it was to earn respect from not only Martin, but other veterans like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon, who Allmendinger grew up watching on TV.
"That to me was like so critical to go out there, and especially the veterans, try to earn their respect more than anything whether I was running fast or not," Allmendinger said.
Martin knew Allmendinger wasn't having the same success in stock cars that he had in open-wheel cars during his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series.
"In the toughest times of '07, when I was down and I didn't think I could get to the next track the next week because…of how much I was struggling, [Martin would] show up and say, 'Man, you're doing a good job. We all know the situation you're in. We know how tough this is. We know what you got put in to.'"
Allmendinger had engine trouble in Sunday's FedEx 400, and dropped five spots in the standings to 16th, while Martin—who finished second—moved up three spots to 11th in the standings, the place that Allmendinger started the day.
If Allmendinger needs any help, whether now or in the future, he knows which driver to turn to.
"Mark's always been probably the nicest guy out there to me and I respect him so much," Allmendinger said.
(*For full disclosure, the author has grown up as a Mark Martin fan, and followed his career since 1993)