It was a little more than three years ago that Terry Labonte sat in New York, the day before the awards ceremony, smiling and chatting.
His career as a full-time Cup driver had just ended with a 10th-place points finish, allowing him one more walk across the stage at the year-end NASCAR banquet.
Every year the media has an opportunity or two to conduct "one-on-one" interviews (they often turn into group sessions) with the top 10 drivers and the Rookie of the Year during the awards week. All of the drivers oblige, though some stay longer than others, answering a few more questions, sharing a few more stories.
On that day back in 2003, Labonte stayed the longest. He clearly was just thrilled to be there one more time.
Fast forward three years to find Mark Martin, courtesy of his ninth-place points finish, in New York, ready to walk across that stage one last time.
Labonte, who actually retired for good from Cup racing late this past season, had no regrets on that day back in 2003. The same can't be said for Martin, who announced his initial retirement plans the same week as Labonte back in 2004.
Two days before this year's banquet, there Martin was lamenting the fact that he never won a Cup championship – something Labonte was able to accomplish twice. Martin also professed to simply not being as good a driver as some who had won championships, but that's just the sort of unjustified downplaying of his own abilities that Martin became known for.
But there also was a tremendous pride Martin felt around he and his team having sat third in points after Talladega, just 10 points out of the lead with six races to go in the 2006 Chase.
Anything could happen. That elusive championship finally might be his. The opportunity was presenting itself.
That's when the bottom fell out.
Martin says he and his team missed chances to capitalize on opportunities, and thats exactly what happened over the final six races, as Martin finished better than 18th just once in that span.
Sure, bad luck had plenty to do with it, but for Martin it was, again, a missed opportunity.
But 2006 as a whole was an opportunity nonetheless, one that Martin relished. For his final media days before his final banquet were scenes that could have played out a year earlier, but everyone knows about Jack Roush convincing Martin to put off retirement and pilot the No. 6 Ford another season.
"I'm glad I did it," said Martin, who couldn't say enough about crew chief Pat Tryson and the efforts of a team that "gave me their guts."
In all, it was a strong final full-time season for Martin, and he readily acknowledged as much. He made the Chase and was in the title hunt – what more could a driver at the end of his career realistically ask for?
Actually, there is more. And it's not something Martin asked for, but rather something he earned.
When asked what the best part of this past season was, Martin, without hesitation, said, "Fans at driver intros."
Indeed, the fan response to Martin's name being announced over the P.A. system during prerace ceremonies throughout the season was loud and overwhelmingly positive. And over the course of this extended retirement tour, Martin perhaps has become more of a fan favorite than he was earlier in his career.
His noted pessimism still would rear its head now and then, but Martin often also showed both an optimistic side this year and last, and also an appreciation for the fact that he was living his dream – and still enjoying it.
This much the fans noticed. And that appreciation – from both the fans and Martin himself – explains why this erstwhile grumpy yet still beloved veteran can't just walk away.
No, he no longer wants to spend 38 weekends a year at the track, but he's also not quite ready to transition into a career as a full-time Craftsman Truck Series driver, as being on the sidelines every Sunday just doesn't suit him – at least not yet.
"I can still get it done on a good day," said Martin, who will run a part-time Cup schedule with MB2/Ginn next year. "I still want to Cup race."
After that day back in 2003, Labonte himself stuck around a few more years, running one full-time and two part-time seasons before driving off into the sunset, so to speak, at Texas last month. And there were some good runs, but Labonte's days of basking in the glory of a top points finish were gone – and that was just fine with him. He was ready for whatever new challenge lay ahead.
Fast forward a year or two from now and, barring another major change of heart or maybe some ill-conceived rule change that puts all race winners in the Chase, you won't find Martin in the final top 10, either. He won't be participating in the awards week activities, doing those one-on-ones. And he won't be walking across the stage at the Waldorf.
What he still might be doing is, unlike Labonte, thinking "what if" and recalling those close-but-no-cigar runs at championships. That might dog him for a while.
And also unlike Labonte, Martin's not interested in new challenges just yet – which has been made obvious by the number of times Martin has changed his mind in the last couple of seasons. Don't be surprised if that continues to happen.
For what Martin likely also will be doing is racing somewhere, whether it be part-time in Cup, full-time in trucks or some other schedule he constructs to fit his lifestyle and quench his endless thirst for racing competition.
When asked how he would like to be thought of by other racers, Martin said, "An old man that never gave up."
Had he given up, Martin wouldn't have even been in New York that week. He wouldn't have made one last Chase.
But there he was in New York, lamenting a bit but also enjoying the fruits of his labor, giving a heartfelt and humorous speech at the banquet and allowing the NASCAR world to applaud his efforts one last time.
And at the track he'll be in 2007 and perhaps beyond, not willing to walk away, not ready to give up.