NASCAR Hall of Fame driver Mark Martin gets special focus at throwback weekend

DARLINGTON, S.C. - Mark Martin will be a major presence this weekend at Darlington Raceway, just like he usually was during his stellar career as a NASCAR driver.

Martin will have not one, not two, but three commemorative throwback paint schemes in his honor as the "Lady In Black" celebrates NASCAR history with its races this weekend.

"It means so much, I can't even tell you," Martin said in a phone interview with AP this week.

Darlington was set to host all three of NASCAR's national circuits, with the third-tier Truck Series racing Friday night, the second-tier Xfinity Series racing Saturday and the main event Sunday with the Cup Series' Goodyear 400. The 63-year-old Martin, who finished second in the Cup Series standings five times in 31 years and was inducted into the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2017, will be remembered much of the weekend.

Two of the Martin tributes will be via Cup Series cars. Brad Keselowski - in his first season driving the No. 6 for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing, which he co-owns - will be at the wheel of a Ford with the blue-and-white look that Martin ran for team owner Jack Roush in 2004. Alex Bowman, in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 48 Chevrolet, will pilot a red-white-and-blue car that looks like the one Martin used in 1993 to earn the first of his two Southern 500 victories at Darlington.

Brett Moffitt will go way back in Martin's history with the Our Motorsports No. 2 Chevy in the Xfinity race, mimicking the car Martin ran his rookie year in 1982.

Darlington, which opened in 1950, has found a niche on the Cup Series schedule with it yearly throwback celebration, a sort of old timer's day for the sport's history.

"We've had lots of Hall of Famer racers honored at Darlington," track president Kerry Tharp said. "But I can't remember anyone getting three tributes the same weekend."

It was enough to lure Martin away from his enjoyable life as a retiree in Montana to make a rare on-track appearance at Darlington.

"It was Moffitt," Martin said about why he came east. "He took a time when no one knew who I was was or wanted anything to do with me. I had to show up."

Not too soon after Martin's start, he routinely showed up on everyone's radar. He finished with 40 career wins in the Cup Series, which ranks 20th. Martin was a modern-day master at Darlington, where the egg-shaped, 1.366-mile layout is an acquired taste for NASCAR's best.

In 12 races at Darlington from March 1989 to April 1994, Martin had 10 top-five finishes and was worse than sixth just once. In 2009, at age 50, Martin outraced Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson to capture the Southern 500.

Martin holds the record for Xfinity Series wins at Darlington with eight, all accomplished in a 15-race span from 1993 to 2000.

His secret? Simple: Just use the same setup each time.

"It was the magic," he said.

Martin loved Darlington's tight straightaways and the challenge of its two different corners that force drivers to come boldly close to the wall if they want to run up front. He's grateful for the success he had at "The Track Too Tough to Tame," but when asked about Darlington memories, he pointed to a couple of runner-up finishes - both to the late Dale Earnhardt - in 1989 and 1990. They were among Martin's six second places in Cup Series races at the track.

"We ran good, but it wasn't good enough," Martin said. "That's what I think about more than any of those wins we had."

Martin has largely remained out of the spotlight as a former racing star.

Keselowski, the 2012 Cup Series champion who left Roger Penske's organization after a decade-plus in order to take an ownership stake in a team, said he and Martin speak every so often, mostly about life. Few understand what it's like to be the face of Roush's team, as Martin was during the bulk of his career, including 35 Cup Series victories.

Said Keselowski: "It's always good catching up with him."