The angst-filled veteran, who has finished second in points four times, would be a sentimental favorite if he makes the Nextel Cup playoff.
By BRANT JAMES
Published September 10, 2004
RICHMOND, Va. - Mark Martin kicked at the bottom of a stack of unused tires that rose to create a fine leaning post.
Picking at the treadless rubber outside his hauler at Rockingham last fall, he emphasized a point not with disgust, but with the same self-critical, almost self-loathing angst that seems to underlie most conversations when the topic becomes the 45-year-old NASCAR veteran.
No, he really didn't have much to do with Matt Kenseth's culminating run to a first Winston Cup driver championship, even though hehad much to do with Kenseth landing his big break with Roush Racing. Martin wasn't even sure he wanted a seat at the head table for the annual NASCAR awards ceremony in New York. He would save that for Kenseth and team owner Jack Roush, also celebrating his first Nextel Cup championship.
As happy as he was for Kenseth, Martin had lost too many championships under bizarre circumstances - four times he had finished second, most recently in 2002 - and was having too poor a season to celebrate.
Nearly a year later, Martin doesn't worry any less or expect any fewer bizarre pitfalls to tumble into his path. But with one race remaining until the field is set for the season-ending, 10-race Chase for the Championship, Martin has as solid a chance to win that first title as at any point in his career.
After Saturday night's Chevy Rock and Roll 400, the top 10 drivers in points and any within 400 of the leader will have their points adjusted and contest for the title. Martin enters the race 10th in points, 20 from the eighth position after producing four top-threes in his past seven races in the No. 6 Ford.
But just 25 points ahead of 11th-place Jamie McMurray, caution rules Martin.
"I've had my heart broke plenty of times in this business," he said. "Things seem to find a way of not working out for me."
It's hard to begrudge Martin his guardedness, on or away from a racetrack. His father Julian, his stepmother Shelley, and 11-year-old stepsister Sarah died in the crash of a private plane near Ely, Nev., in 1998. And Martin is a recovering alcoholic.
"People have to decide if the glass is half full or half empty," said Roush, Martin's team owner since 1998. "Most of the time Mark's is half empty. It's just the way he is. He works real hard. He is real serious about what he does in his approach to racing, in approach to his life. He has been careful with his money, taken care of his family - he's had a lot of tragedies in his life.
"He's not surprised at the worst, and he's more surprised when things work out than most people would be."
On the track, being known as the "greatest driver never to win a championship" is not something Martin embraces. In 1990, he won three times and led the points standings for 25 weeks, but after a win in Richmond he was found to have used an illegal carburetor spacer plate. Martin kept the win but was penalized 46 points and lost the title by 26 to Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Martin, who also has finished third in the final standings four times, led late in 2002 before Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge were allowed to alter the noses of their cars. Tony Stewart used the aerodynamics improvement on his Pontiac to beat Martin by 38 points for the title.
Martin's 2003 was a total write off with a 17th-place championship finish, and Roush made a surprise announcement during Speed Weeks by pronouncing Truck series driver Carl Edwards the heir to Martin's No. 6 Ford in 2006. Martin was not happy, Edwards said, but not for the reason people thought.
"I think he wasn't super-thrilled because (Roush) was trying to put a timetable on him," Edwards said. "I think (Roush) was trying to wedge Mark into racing a little longer than he wants to."
Now Edwards is unsure if Martin is thinking about retirement at all.
"He's having a blast," he said.
Martin has reinvigorated himself this season despite more misadventures of engine failures that likely cost him at least three top-10 finishes. He declared his title hopes likely over when he was 15th in the standings, 138 points out of 10th, but he persevered. That pluck and nostalgia undoubtedly will make Martin a sentimental favorite if he holds his playoff spot. It's not something he wants to consider right now, not until he earns that spot, and maybe not even after. Until then, he will at least allow himself the indulgence, at the risk of angering whatever fates have tormented him, of admitting the glass can sometimes be half full.
"It has been fun. Yes, it has," he said of this season. "I'm not one that speaks of that a lot."