HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- "Fire in the hole!"
With that command from his crew, Mark Martin flipped the switch to fire the engine on one final Sunday drive, making the 882nd and final start in his NASCAR Sprint Cup Series tenure.
He quickly radioed back: "You guys are awesome. Let's just do what you do tonight."
With that, Martin embarked on a potential last hurrah in what's sure to be a slam-dunk Hall of Fame career. It clearly didn't go as well as he'd hoped -- he finished 19th after starting 22nd in the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway, moving up and spending the better part of the day on the fringes of the top 10 before fading hard on the final green-flag run.
He's hesitated to use the word "retirement" as the season has wound down, but if this was his swan song, the 54-year-old driver made it clear he was going out on his own terms. So frustrated with his car's handling in the late going, he exited the car Sunday evening and left the track without comment.
His final ledger -- which spans a successful, impressive 31 years -- will boast stats that place him among the sport's all-time greats: 40 victories in NASCAR's premier series, 49 wins in what is now the NASCAR Nationwide Series, and seven wins in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series.
The glaring omissions in his portfolio are two prizes he came oh-so-close to claiming. Martin finished second in the Sprint Cup standings on five occasions, with his most recent near-miss for an elusive championship in 2009.
He also never made it to Victory Lane in the Daytona 500, his most memorable flirtation with NASCAR's crown jewel race coming in 2007, when he finished just two-hundredths of a second behind race winner Kevin Harvick in second place. He made one last run at The Great American Race this season, finishing third behind Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Martin had already scaled back his driving duties in recent seasons, leaving Hendrick Motorsports after a full 2011 campaign to race part-time for Michael Waltrip Racing, splitting time with Brian Vickers the last two years.
When driver/owner Tony Stewart was sidelined for the rest of the year after breaking his leg in August in a sprint car crash, Martin stepped in as a super sub, filling in driving the No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet for most of the remaining races. He'll stay with Stewart-Haas in 2014 in an undefined role, saying the previous week at Phoenix International Raceway that he was opening a new chapter in his life with racing.
On the driving side, Martin's podium finish in the Daytona opener wound up being his only top-five finish of the season. He added a pole position the following weekend at Phoenix, but despite ranking sixth in the standings after three races, Martin adhered to his part-time schedule, sitting out while Vickers split time in the No. 55 MWR Toyota.
Though his time subbing for Stewart netted just one top-10 finish, Martin's radio crackled one final time after taking the checkered flag Sunday night at Homestead with expressions of gratitude from both sides.
"Thank you for everything that you've done for us in this sport, Mark Martin."
And later: "Thank you buddy; you're my hero."
Martin's reply: "Thanks, man -- I appreciate it. Good job. You really helped me today."