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Top Fuel’s Cory Mac Sick Of Being Second

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 20 2010
Cory McClenathan has a bit of Mark Martin in him. Photo courtesy of Don Schumacher Racing)

Cory McClenathan has a bit of Mark Martin in him. Photo courtesy of Don Schumacher Racing)

By Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent
RacinToday.com

Chandler, Ariz. – When Cory McClenathan looks in the mirror, he doesn’t see Mark Martin. But maybe he should.

Aside from the machinery they drive, McClenathan and Martin share strikingly similar careers, and woes.

Like Martin, a fan favorite and one of the most respected drivers in the NASCAR garage, McClenathan is well liked by his NHRA peers and also is one of the most popular drivers on pit road.

Each driver is a prolific winner. Martin has 40 career Sprint Cup victories and McClenathan is tied for No. 6 on the all-time Top Fuel list with 31, including twice at the prestigious U.S. Nationals.

Each driver also is nearing the end of their careers as Martin, whose first NASCAR start was in 1981, is 51.

McClenathan, whose 20th season continues this weekend in the Arizona Nationals at Firebird International Raceway, is 47.

And one more thing. Neither driver has reached the mountaintop.

Like Martin, a five-time series runner-up, McClenathan never has won a Top Fuel championship, finishing No. 2 four times (1992, ’95, ’97, ’98).

“I’ve heard people say that I might be the best driver never to have won a championship,” said McClenathan, a Schumacher teammate at Don Schumacher Racing. “I’d never say something like that myself. But I also don’t think I want to be known for that. We’re all out here to win championships and it’s been tough to take not winning one.”

As much as Schumacher is eager to add a seventh straight crown, should he fail, he would hope the championship hardware stayed within a Schumacher organization that also includes skilled wheelman Antron Brown.

If it happened to be McClenathan to ascend the throne, that would suit Schumacher just fine.

“He’s been the bridesmaid too many times,” Schumacher said. “I think it may frustrate him a little bit that he hasn’t won it. It probably plays into his mind a little bit.

“But he’s a great driver and I hope he goes on and wins the thing. One of these years, man. He sure has paid his dues, probably as much as anyone in the sport.”

One of these years might be this year, said McClenathan, who was the No. 1 qualifier driving the FRAM dragster at the Winternationals series opener last week in Pomona, Calif. Although McClenathan was beaten in the semifinals by Doug Kalitta, he remains upbeat entering Firebird, where he is a two-time champion.

“I didn’t like losing, but I’m not unhappy,” said McClenathan, whose father, Richard, was scheduled to undergo open-heart surgery Friday in California. “We did really well. We have a great car and team. I think everybody knows they’re going to have to come to us to beat us. I think everybody has figured out our car can go from A to B 95 percent of the time.”

Home since 2008 has been the Schumacher organization, where McClenathan finished No. 3 and No. 4 in the final standings the first two years, and is No. 3 early this season with 22 remaining stops.

Where McClenathan hopes to be in November following the final race, however, is where Schumacher has been the past six seasons.

“If I could win that championship, it will mean I’ve done everything I ever wanted to do in this sport,” McClenathan said. “Like (Martin), I still feel competitive. My crew chiefs (Todd Okuhara and Phil Shuler) still believe in me. The rest of the team believes in me. And I believe in me.

“I guess I look at it the same way Mark (Martin) does when he said he could walk away and be happy even if he doesn’t win a championship. I think I could do that knowing I’ve had a great career and have done a lot of good things in this class.

“But at the same time, I came into this to win championships. I feel like it’s only a matter of time because we’ve got such a good car with great guys working on it.”

Like Martin, McClenathan has come oh-so-close to attaining a champion’s trophy.

In 1992, McClenathan lost the title by 92 points to Joe Amato and that was after McClenathan skipped the Montreal race and lost an opportunity to gain another 100 points just by qualifying.

“It was a team operated by our family and it was a lot of money to go (to Montreal) and we just decided to hold back on that one,” McClenathan said of the race that was stop No. 8 in an 18-race NHRA schedule. “I had no idea we’d go on and win a bunch of rounds.

“Still, everyone focuses on that one race we didn’t go to. It was the right thing to do. Dad and I have talked about it many times and we’d still make the same decisions every time. We still could have wont he title had we won just one more round at any of the other races during the season. We just didn’t do it.”

Now McClenathan hopes to make up for earlier missed opportunities by speeding to the top of the championship ladder in the few remaining seasons he has left before calling it a career.

“A couple of years ago I said I’d give it five more years before retiring,” said McClenathan, the first driver to surpass the 320-mph marker with a 322.17-mph blast in 1997 at the Texas Motorplex. “I’m 47 so that gives me three more years. But I really feel this year could be the year. I’m very confident we can get this done.”

– Mark Armijo is the long-time auto racing beat writer for the Arizona Republic and a frequent contributor to RacinToday.com

Mark Armijo | Senior Correspondent, RacinToday.com Saturday, February 20 2010
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