Mark Martin joined the growing list of longtime drivers easing their way out of NASCAR, announcing Thursday that the 2005 season will be his last as a full-time racer.
Martin is not retiring, but wants to lighten his schedule after what will be his 19th full season. That will be the last opportunity for him to win a championship.
"In 2006, I'll still be in the driver's seat," Martin said. "I just don't know exactly what seat that will be just yet.
"I'm too young to retire, but I've had enough of this full schedule and the battle. It's been really tough on me and it's been tough on my family, and I look forward to opening the next chapter."
The 45-year-old Martin is the latest driver to begin the final phase of his career.
Terry Labonte said Tuesday he'll run just 10 races a season for the next two years, then retire. Rusty Wallace is making 2005 his final season. Bill Elliott has already scaled back to a limited schedule.
Martin said he still wants to race, just not run the full 36-event schedule. He'll probably compete in some Nextel Cup races, some Busch series events and possibly even a few Craftsman Truck series races, among other things.
But he won't be in the No. 6 Ford for Roush Racing after next year. Owner Jack Roush plans to field that car in 2006, but has secured neither a replacement driver nor a sponsor.
Martin has famously failed in his long pursuit of a NASCAR championship, finishing second in the points four times and third another four times.
He used a strong summer push this year to qualify for NASCAR's 10-race playoff system, and is fifth in the standings heading into Saturday night's UAW-GM Quality 500 at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
"I want to step out while I'm at the top of my game," he explained. "I wanted to go out that way, instead of on the decline."
NASCAR will penalize neither Tony Stewart nor Mike Bliss for a fight they had after last week's Busch series race at Kansas Speedway.
They spent last Sunday morning in the NASCAR hauler explaining what happened after they tangled on the track during the Mr. Goodcents 300.
Stewart called Bliss a "hammerhead" over the radio during the race, and they clashed later in the team hauler. Although they are teammates at Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart was not driving for Gibbs in the Busch event.
NASCAR spokesman Jim Hunter has characterized the fight as "kind of a family spat."
"There was some pushing, some shoving, some cursing," he said.
NASCAR officials considered the fight to be an internal team matter and declined to intervene.
Weller III Is Improving
Jimmy Weller III, the sprint-car driver injured in a dirt track race at Lowe's Motor Speedway, was upgraded to stable condition Thursday.
The 18-year-old driver from Liberty, Ohio, sustained a head injury and broke two fractured vertebrae in a crash Wednesday night. His car slammed into the wall and flipped violently, and track workers covered the driver's cockpit with a white cloth as they worked to free Weller from the wreck.
Weller was flown by helicopter to Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, where he was initially listed in critical condition.
Track spokesman Keith Waltz said Weller was improved, with swelling reduced in his head and hemorrhaging dissipated.
"He has movement of limbs, and he is responding to commands, although he is still heavily sedated," Waltz said. "He is in much better shape than he was at this time yesterday."
Two-time Daytona 500 winner Michael Waltrip has a new crew chief beginning this weekend at Lowe's Motor Speedway.
Pete Rondeau, the car chief on the No. 15 Chevrolet, replaced Slugger Labbe before qualifying on Thursday.
"When we talked about when to make the transition, we initially thought this would be something that we would do at the end of the 2004 season," said Richie Gilmore, director of competition at Dale Earnhardt Inc. "In looking at it a little closer, we decided we would go ahead and make the change now and try to win a race or two before the end of the 2004 season."
Labbe, who spent the last three years as Waltrip's crew chief, will now assist the title efforts for both the Chance 2 Motorsports and No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet teams. Labbe also will oversee development programs for the No. 11 Busch car and the No. 15 Nextel Cup team.