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Martin Makes Peace With His Place In History

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 7 2009
It looks like Mark Martin is going to come up short one more time. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Mark Martin said, "I have come to realize that I’m no Dale Earnhardt." (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

By John Sturbin | Senior Writer

Fort Worth, Texas – Mark Martin’s conscience will not allow him to tell a lie. Not even to himself.

And so, maybe it is true that Martin – second in Chase points to Jimmie Johnson – is just not good enough to become NASCAR Sprint Cup champion.

“Obviously, the performance of the No. 48 (Johnson) has been phenomenal, and we have given it a good fight,” said Martin, who trails the three-time/reigning Cup champion by 184 points heading into Sunday’s Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway. “We haven’t quite matched their performance, although we gave him a pretty good run until Martinsville and Charlotte.

“That is all we can do. Certainly, I wasn’t BS-ing you guys (media); I didn’t take this job to go try and get a championship trophy. I took this job, you know why…and doggone, it has worked out pretty good. We have been in a position (to contend); it still could happen…the race is still on for the top-six positions. We are going to race. I can’t wait!”

A four-time Cup points runner-up, Martin generally is regarded as the best driver never to have won NASCAR’s biggest prize. But beginning in 1990, when Martin finished second to Dale Earnhardt by 26 points, he has been perennially close. Earnhardt claimed his seventh and final championship in 1994, when he finished 444 points ahead of Martin. In 1998, Jeff Gordon claimed the third of his four championships, and second straight, by a margin of 364 points over Martin. And in 2002, Tony Stewart bagged the first of his two titles by 38 points over Martin.

“You know, actually the 1989 season was overlooked,” Martin recalled during a news conference. “We were second in points going into the last race in our second year with Roush Racing and the engine blew up and caught on fire and we finished third.  And that was as disappointing to me as…you know, it didn’t disappoint the team I don’t think all that much because they thought they were going for it. But for me, I wanted to be second and not third.

“And then the next year we led from May until the next-to-last race and I thought I could beat Earnhardt…and as it turned out, I was wrong.  And that was the one that I wanted to win and probably most of all when I was young and when it looked like we were going to.”

Today, at age 50 and nearing completion of his first season at Hendrick Motorsports, Martin and his conscience are at peace. The consensus is that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus – basically one full race ahead of Martin in points – are bearing down on an unprecedented fourth consecutive Cup crown. If Martin fails to catch Johnson and holds off Hendrick teammate Gordon over the last three races, he will deal with the facts as he has for nearly 20 years.

“Since then, I have learned a lot and I have seen a lot and I have come to realize that I’m no Dale Earnhardt,” said Martin, driver of the No. 5 CARQUEST/Kellogg’s Chevrolet Impala SS. “My record don’t stand up to his…just doesn’t.  And when you stand me up against Jeff Gordon…it just don’t stand up to it, man. I understand that. And we have beat them, but it was always somebody else that beat us, you know?

“So, I think it’s pretty awesome to hold my own against guys like that in the sport. I gave them something to shoot at in the race from time to time. I gave their fans something to be concerned about and I gave mine something to cheer about. And my record just don’t stand up against theirs. It’s just that plain-and-simple. Tony Stewart’s either.  And those are the three guys that I have run second to and most of those guys have finished behind me on any given year.

“That is where I am at, man. I don’t think I am better than all those guys, I am just glad I can get out there and beat them once in a while. If I couldn’t, it might not be as appealing to me.”

Martin reiterated that he is a huge fan of Johnson’s work ethic, a combination that ranges from pre- and post-race notes reviews to proper nutrition to a commitment to physical fitness.

“I was one of those, like many others from the outside looking in, looking at Jimmie Johnson making it look easy thinking he was a lucky guy that drove for a great race team,” said Martin, who is paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson. “I’m taking that back now. I’ve seen different and one of the guys that is standing up and saying, ‘Hey, he’s not getting enough credit.’^”

As previously noted, Martin and team-owner Jack Roush emerged as title contenders in their second full season. Between 1989 and 2000, Martin and his various No. 6 Fords finished no lower than eighth in points. Those performances backed up Martin’s record as a three-time American Speed Association stock car champion (1978-80) – success that prompted a jump to NASCAR in 1981.

But Martin’s struggles as an owner/driver in 1981-82, and a 1983 season that saw him run a partial schedule for three owners and himself, forced him back to the Midwest for the 1984-85 seasons. Martin ran a single Cup race in 1987 before joining Roush’s fledgling organization for the ‘88 campaign.

“It brings up some odd memories,” said Martin, the winner of 40 Cup races, including five this season. “One of them certainly was that I was too young. Back then, they didn’t want any young drivers.  Jeff Gordon really was the one that changed all of that. Before that, they weren’t looking for young talented drivers; they were looking for the experienced ones. A lot of differences though. But there are some similarities in the fact that I was not a ‘preferred driver;’ I wasn’t in high-demand and not in a high-demand category now based on my age.

“But, we’re doing it. We were doing it then and we are doing it now. There are similarities and there are some vast differences. Back then, we were certainly struggling for the finances to do this and we are certainly in a better position now than we were then.”

Martin’s championship chances took a hit last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway, where a late-race wreck-and-roll relegated him to a 28th-place finish. Martin fell another 66 points behind Johnson and the Lowe’s/KOBALT Tools Chevy, but claimed he is not bent-out-of-shape over it.

“No heartbreak whatsoever,” said Martin, who has qualified on-pole seven times this season. “But Talladega did rub because I would rather get beat than turn over, you know what I mean?  I want to go down racing and not like that. But you know what, we raced. We raced all day. We raced like we just couldn’t be in a wreck. I was in one I didn’t even see. I never even knew I was going to be in that wreck until I was turning over. So…what the hey. It certainly doesn’t break my heart; it was a rub at Talladega. I would rather go down fighting than flipping.”

Meanwhile, Martin will be making his 18th start at TMS from the seventh position after touring the 1.5-mile quadoval at 190.087 mph on Friday. Martin won the Texas 500 here on April 5, 1998 and has eight other top-10 finishes on the layout where he recorded the first official test laps in September 1996. Martin was critical of the track’s “dual-banking” configuration back then, not to mention the abrupt transition exiting Turn 4 into the frontstretch dogleg. He later wondered aloud why the management of Speedway Motorsports Inc. did not bring in a driver as a consultant during construction.

Fittingly, Martin won the first NASCAR race here – the Nationwide Series Coca-Cola 300 – on April 5, 1997. A dozen years after the track’s controversial unveiling, Martin continues as the conscience of TMS, if not an unabashed fan.

“This is a great facility in a great location,” said Martin, a native of Batesville in neighboring Arkansas. “Great part of the country to come to not only because of the tremendous facility, but because the fans support it in such an incredible way. The fan support here not only with numbers but with enthusiasm is overwhelming.”

Martin, who recently signed a contract extension with Rick Hendrick that will carry through 2011, is aware that in order to keep this Chase churning, a second Cup victory today is a bottom-line necessity. He plans to treat Sunday at TMS as a visit with an ornery, old friend that he has come to appreciate.

“If you want to win (here) you have to go through the corners faster than anyone else,” said Martin, who logged 35 laps during Saturday morning’s final Happy Hour practice, with a top speed of 181.561 mph. In comparison, Johnson paced the session at 186.670 mph.

“That is a challenge,” said Martin, once again just not good enough, “because these corners are a little bit flat on the exit, a little flat on the entry and good banking in the center. You have to figure out a way to make your car roll through there faster than everybody else.”

– John Sturbin can be reached at jsturbin@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, November 7 2009