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Harris: Two Drivers Who Haven’t Who Should Have

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 20 2010

Helio Castroneves still has time to win a championship – more time than Mark Martin – but the clock is ticking. (File photo courtesy of the IZOD IndyCar Series)

By Mike Harris | Senior Writer
RacinToday.com

Bobby Allison was considered one of the best of all time in NASCAR long before he won his first and only championship in what was then Winston Cup.

Allison began racing in NASCAR’s top stock car series in 1961, but he didn’t win that title until 1983 at the age of 45 and with 80 of his 85 total wins already on his sterling resume.

For years, whenever Allison was asked if failing to win a championship would cast a shadow on a tremendously successful career, the generally soft-spoken Floridian – yes, he later moved to Alabama – replied, “It would be nice, but it really won’t matter.’’

Then he won the championship and his tune changed.

“Winning that championship trophy one of the greatest things that ever  happened  to me,’’ Allison told me that winter. “It’s kind of like putting the icing on my career. I didn’t know that being the champion would mean this much to me.’’

That memory got me to thinking about what a couple of current driving stars are going through.

It’s been well documented that Mark Martin has finished as the championship runner-up five

Mark Martin and wife Arlene. He says he does not need to win a championship. (File photo by Geoff Burke/Getty Images for NASCAR)

times in a great career that has spanned 28 years. The latest second-place finish came last year at the age of 50, raising many hopes that the seemingly ageless Martin would finally get the job done this year.

Instead, the people’s choice has had a frustrating season, failing to qualify for the 12-man Chase for the championship and  prompting speculation that his days as a contender may be over, even though his current contract with Hendrick Motorsports runs through next season.

Martin often echoes the pre-championship Allison when asked how getting out of the cockpit for the final time without a title will affect the way he views his career and the way he is viewed by others.

“I have had a great, fun career,’’ Martin said in a recent interview. “I would have loved to win (a championship), but if I wasn’t meant to win one, so be it. I know people have appreciated the way I drive and what I have accomplished. I’m not going to lose any sleep over not winning a championship.’’

And he shouldn’t.

Martin has given racing fans numerous thrills over the years. Through most of his career he has been a driver’s driver, the guy other competitors point to as a role model and seek out for advice on racing or life.

But it is a shame for someone who has been so good for so long to finish without a championship trophy to someday gaze at from that old rocking chair.

And he’s not alone. Another driver who truly seems like he should own a championship before his driving days are done is Helio Castroneves.

The brilliant Brazilian, whose victory Saturday in Japan was his second in a row and third of the year, has a pair of runner-up points finishes in 10 years in the IZOD IndyCar Serie and 14 years overall in American open-wheel racing.

He’s almost always competitive, as his 25 wins – 19 in IndyCars , including three victories in the Indianapolis 500 – demonstrate. But he’s recently been overshadowed in the points by Team Penske teammates Ryan Briscoe last year and series leader Will Power in 2010.

The big difference between Castroneves and Martin is that the Brazilian, at 35, still has at least a brief window of time to win a series title. After all, two-time IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti won last year’s title at the age of 36.

But coming close isn’t good enough.

“It does hurt,’’ the emotional Castroneves said in 2008 when he finished just 17 points behind Scott Dixon despite a furious late-season rally. “But if the championship never comes, I will still be proud of my career and what I have done.

“It takes everything to go right to win a championship. You and your team have to be good and you have to be lucky. The Penske team will keep working hard, like they always do, and maybe, one day, the luck will go our way.’’

Both Martin and Castroneves are nice guys who work hard, have all kinds of talent and deserve all the success they can grab.

It’s probably too late for Martin, but it would be nice to see Castroneves kissing that championship trophy sometime soon.

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

Mike Harris | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, September 20 2010
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