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Harris: Shed No Tears For Martin

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 17 2009
No pity, please, for Mark Martin. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

No pity, please, for Mark Martin. (Photo by Darrell Ingham/Getty Images)

Mark Martin is going to finish second in NASCAR’s biggest championship for the fifth time unless a minor miracle happens Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

But let’s not hold a pity party for the 50-year-old racing icon.

For those who doubt Martin’s sincerity when he says – over and over again – that  he’ll still feel fulfilled as a driver despite never winning the Sprint Cup title, we need to go back five years to an early February day in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Martin was getting ready for what he planned to be his final season of racing in NASCAR. He fully expected to begin spending more time with his family, particularly with son Matt, who was racing trucks and looked like he might have a very bright future in his father’s chosen sport.

A few old friends from the media were invited to Martin’s office not far from Daytona International Speedway, at the fly-in community where he and his family have a home and where he keeps his airplane.

As Martin reflected on his career over lunch, a writer kept gazing at the very impressive floor-to-ceiling trophy cases that filled up an entire wall, chock full of memorabilia from his long and illustrious career.

“Mark, there’s no championship trophy up there from NASCAR,’’ the writer said. “Does that leave a hole in your resume?’’

Instead of being insulted or upset by the question, Martin’s craggy face lit up and he chuckled.

“No way,’’ the veteran stock car driver said. “I love what I’ve accomplished in my career. I’ve gotten more out of it than I ever could have imagined. There’s nothing missing from my resume that would make me sad if I quit today.’’

Of course, Martin’s decision to retire became moot  later that year when longtime car owner and friend Jack Roush told Martin he needed him back for another season. Martin raced the full 2006 season for Roush, finishing ninth in the points.

With his son’s racing career fizzling out, Martin chose to continue racing but cut back on his Cup schedule, figuring he’d kind of ease his way out of the sport and still have more time at home.

He ran 24 races in 2007 for Bobby Ginn and then Dale Earnhardt Inc., then drove 24 more in 2008 for DEI.

“It was everything I expected it to be,’’ Martin said earlier this season. “I enjoyed being home with Arlene and Matt and watching some of the races on TV from my couch. I was content with that.’’

But midway through last year, Martin got an offer he couldn’t refuse from Rick Hendrick. He resumed his full-time career this season, driving the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports,  and was suddenly, and surprisingly, a contender again.

His five wins – the first victories for Martin since 2005 – helped him easily qualify for the Chase for the championship. And Martin has hung in behind three-time reigning champion Jimmie Johnson, who goes into Homestead with a 108 point lead over the runner-up.

Johnson needs only to finish 25th or better on Sunday to wrap up an unprecedented fourth straight title, no matter what Martin does.

But Martin insists he won’t be disappointed to finish second again.

“I’m pretty proud of what we’ve done this season,’’ Martin said last week at Phoenix “I may not have the best memory in the world, but I’m going to look at 2009 and say I’ve had the best year of my life, personally as well as professionally.  … You know, I found so much peace and happiness and good-quality time with people, relationships, family, coworkers, fans, competitors, as well as success on the racetrack.’’

And he also re-upped with Hendrick for two more years of full-time racing.

So don’t feel sorry for Martin, no matter what happens Sunday.

Finishing second won’t bother him, any more than those four third-place finishes or the three fourth-place finishes he has posted during his enduring NASCAR career.

There is one thing that does bother him, though.

Martin, who lost a photo finish to Kevin Harvick in the 2007 Daytona 500, told Rusty Wallace last week that he still covets a victory in NASCAR’s biggest event.

But, if he doesn’t eventuarlly win a championship or a Daytona 500, you can bet Martin won’t pout. He’ll simply go on to the next thing in his life, grateful that he got the chance to do for nearly three decades the thing he loves most except for his family – drive race cars.

– Mike Harris can be reached at mharris@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Tuesday, November 17 2009