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Mark Martin: Championship or not, the classiest guy in the sport of NASCAR today

  Mark Martin: probably not playoff-bound this season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern



It looks like it's all over for Mark Martin.
Last season he came within an eyelash of that elusive NASCAR championship.
But this season – barring something highly dramatic in Saturday night's Richmond 400 – he won't even make the chase.
It was way back in 1981 when Martin first arrived in this sport, making a bit of a splash, with poles at Nashville and here at Richmond International Raceway, then as a high-strung, maybe a bit obnoxious 22-year-old from somewhere out in the Midwest.
His gamble on making the big leagues ran dry after a couple of seasons, and he vanished....only to be resurrected, in a stunning surprise, by then-new team owner Jack Roush.
For 19 years Martin and Roush were as tight as driver and team owner could be. They came close so many times to winning that championship.
But now, here at 51, Martin's trophy case still has that vacant spot where the Cup should be sitting.
Martin, perhaps the best, and durable, stock car driver never to win the championship, may have one final chance in 2011....but this weekend it looks like he'll have to take a place on the playoff sidelines, unless he can somehow gain 147 points on 12-th place Clint Bowyer, jump up from 15th to make the cut.
The odds on that?
"I haven't done the math, but I don't think they're very good," Martin concedes. "I'm sure if Clint starts the race, we just about need to be leading the most laps and win the race and him finish last.... somewhere in that range.
"We've got ourselves too far behind to expect to jump in there."

  Mark Martin and his wife Arlene have been through a lot in their years together on the NASCAR trail (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

After a five-win run in 2009, and a sizzling 21 top-10 finishes, this year he's slumped. Still winless, his best finishes are fourths, at California, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Charlotte, all back in the spring. In fact, that Memorial Day weekend 600 was Martin's last top-five run, and his best since has been a seventh at Pocono.
Not much to write home about.
So just how is Martin feeling about all this?
Well, resigned to his fate.
"This is my first time to miss it," he says of the title run. "I didn't run for it in '07 or '08.
"Certainly being in it is big.
"But for me, if we were to have squeaked into it and continued to run like we've run the last three or four races, then it wouldn't make our season."
That includes a 19th at Watkins Glen (and remember when Martin was one of the sport's best road racers), 28th at Michigan, 23rd at Bristol, and 21st at Atlanta.
What's happened?
Well, the simple answer might be car owner Rick Hendrick's decision over the winter to have Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, work overtime this season with fellow crew chief Lance McGrew to help get Dale Earnhardt Jr. in gear. Earnhardt has struggled the last several years, to put it mildly.
But by having Gustafson work even more closely with McGrew, what has been the net result?
Earnhardt's performances have been a little better; he's 19th in the standings. But Martin's performances have suffered.
And of course Martin has been dogged much of the year by that Kasey Kahne controversy, which still is clouded by questions. Kahne is to take over the Gustafson-Hendrick ride in 2012, when Martin's current contract ends.
"I'll have more insight on missing it after this season's behind us, I guess," Martin says. "But for us right now our focus is to get back up on the level that we were on last year."
Ironically Kevin Harvick and team owner Richard Childress' guys have been going in the opposite direction this season. Last summer Harvick was moping, and Childress teams were slumping.
Now Harvick is leading the tour, and one of the favorites for the championship, with the playoffs opening in Loudon, N.H., next week.
"Didn't really see this coming for the 5 car," Martin says of his team's slump.
"We were hitting the bulls-eye last year...and we haven't found the bulls-eye this year."
The whole season has, in fact, been rather numbing for Martin and his guys.
"It's something none of us expected, or saw coming," he said. "We are the same people that were doing this a year ago and doing it so well...
"Expectations are really tough to deal with when you don't meet them. That's why I've tried so hard to keep my expectations in check.
"Still, even as much as I do that, I couldn't have ever been prepared for having as tough a year as what we've had."
For a man who has had his heart broken so many times in this sport, and who has built his own inner defenses against that, that says something.
"In my second year with Roush we went into the last race in second in the points...and we broke an engine and wound up third," Martin recalled.
"And then in my third year we almost won it all....."
If not for that still-curious carburetor base-plate controversy here at Richmond....
"There was all the controversy about the points penalty we got, and whether or not we should have got really a points penalty, based on what the infraction was....whatever the controversy was," Martin said slowly.
"And you know what -- it didn't bother me. Because I knew -- and anybody would know, based on the experience I had had -- that I would win one."
But here now some 20 years later that spot in the trophy case is still empty.
Martin is stoic about it all: "When I look back on it now, it wouldn't have changed my life had I won it in 1990. It wouldn't change my life any. I don't think I'd be a different person.
"When I look back on it, I've been very, very fortunate to have been incredibly successful at doing what I have passion for and love.
"I'm no champion....I'm just lucky I got to win a pile of races.
"I'm no champion. I haven't earned the right to be in that category or to stand beside those guys.
"But at the same time, I'm proud I made them work for it...and I saw them finish behind me many a time. And that I can be proud of.
"There's a measure to every human being, there are different ways you measure success.
"If you're a race driver, points is one of those measurements.
"But it is not the only measuring stick.
"But it is certainly one of them....And I don't measure up in that category."
However when it comes to championship-class, Martin has that in spades.
Of all the drivers to come through this sport over its 60 years, perhaps no one has epitomized class and spirit like Mark Martin.

  Mark Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson: sidetracked this season while trying to boost teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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