Car owner Jack Roush usually keeps his emotions to himself. But with Saturday night's race at Richmond International Speedway looming, Roush had a flashback to a 10-year-old hurt.
The result was a rare emotional display in which the Winston Cup car owner revealed what he considers a long-standing injustice.
"I feel as bad about what happened at Richmond today as I did the day it happened," Roush said, recalling driver Mark Martin's 1990 victory and the penalty that NASCAR imposed after it. "Because of that ... I almost don't care if I never win a NASCAR championship.
"We'll race to win as many races as possible, but my heart's broke. No one deserves a championship more than Mark Martin."
In 1990, NASCAR had a Winston Cup rule that said that there could only be two inches between the carburetor and the manifold. But at the Daytona 500 that February, NASCAR inspectors had allowed teams to weld the manifold so that it would be an inch higher and to put the two-inch space between the carburetor and the manifold. Altogether, it was a three-inch space allowance.
When the teams rolled into Richmond the following week, Martin's team members went to work setting up his car. In their minds, they had three inches to work with. So, instead of creating the extra space by welding the manifold, they simply bolted on a two-and-a-half inch spacer.
Though the car passed three pre-race inspections, it was ruled illegal after the race. Martin kept the victory, but he was penalized 46 points. At the end of the season, Dale Earnhardt won his fourth title by 26 points over Martin.
"Going by the technical word, we were wrong, because we bolted on the spacer instead of welding it," said Martin. "But they were allowing teams three inches and we were within that. It was a situation in which it didn't impact how the car ran. We could have achieved the same thing legally by welding the spacer instead of using the bolts.
"You could look at that a couple ways. I'm not saying it was right or wrong. It cost me 46 points. I can see how Bill France, sitting in his office, is presented the situation. The rule book says two inches, he is told my team had two and a half inches. He probably didn't know the officials at the track had been allowing three inches."
What really irked Roush was that his Ford had passed through inspection three times prior to the race without anyone finding fault.
"The inspectors had sealed that manifold three times," Roush said. "The situation is that when something is inspected and it's OK before a race, it needs to be OK after the race.
"The luster is way off NASCAR's championships," Roush said.
Martin, who is nothing if not philosophical, said in a phone interview this week, that if he were in Jack's place, he would never have brought up the hurt or expressed such frustration.
"It's easy to print what someone says," Martin said, "but it is very difficult to print what someone really means. Jack has worked very, very hard trying to win and he feels he [lost the 1990 title]on a ruling over something that he still doesn't feel was wrong. It wasn't a blatant act, like using illegal parts. His team had done what it believed to be within the rules, and had been approved before the races. And, I think, Jack is real mad because I haven't won the championship. He feels I deserve one and personally, I don't care."
In the 13 years Martin has driven for Roush, they have finished in the Top 5 nine times, including three seconds and four thirds. But, Martin said, winning a Winston Cup title is not going to make him a great driver. He believes his record already speaks for itself, having won 32 Cup races and more than $22 million.
"A championship does not define me as a great race car driver," he said. "If I win one, I'll feel good, but I won't feel different. I don't want to diminish the championship. It is the crown jewel, the ultimate success. But don't lose sight of everything else. Greatness is what a driver does week-in, week-out and what they do to stay on top. If you want to play the lotto, good for you if you win, but don't slit your wrist if you lose.
"If I had slit my wrist after Richmond in 1990, I wouldn't have the opportunity I have now to try to win this championship this season."
And Martin thinks he is definitely in the running for the 2000 crown. He is second in points, with at least half of the races that give him and his team trouble behind him. And he is going into tomorrow's qualifying with the knowledge that Richmond International Raceway is one of his favorites.
"Bristol is a short track that provides a great show under the lights, but Richmond gets the award from the competitors as well as the fans," Martin said. "It is shaped and banked and laid out in such a way that passing is not a major problem."
And there is something else different about a night race.
Martin said from inside his car, it may not be as easy for him to see it, but, he added, even he feels it.
"There is something different when the sky is black and the lights pop off the shape of the cars," he said. "Even the air feels different in your lungs. I don't know what it is, but there's that high school football game feeling of excitement even before the race starts."
Pontiac Excitement 400
What: Winston Cup race
Where: Richmond (Va.) International Raceway
When: Saturday, 7: 30 p.m.