Cup-less Martin gets no respect

Doubters of driver persist despite his 33 victories

Auto Racing

July 06, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Retired Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino never won a Super Bowl, but no one doubts his greatness. NASCAR driver Mark Martin should be so lucky.

Now, sitting in his team's transporter, he is listening to remarks made by Fox television analysts Darrell Waltrip and Larry McReynolds, and Martin's blood pressure is rising.

Speaking during a conference call a few days ago, Waltrip and McReynolds had a conversation that went like this:

"Over the past couple months, Mark Martin has been the most consistent of the whole group [of drivers]," said McReynolds.

"Yeah," said Waltrip, a three-time Winston Cup champion, "but history tells me Roush Racing hasn't won a championship."

"Not to say anything negative against Roush Racing or Mark Martin," said McReynolds. "They've put themselves in position to win a championship, [but] when it comes down to the final hour, they hit the panic button too hard."

Martin is silent.

His jaw begins to work.

He inches forward on his chair, and now, he has advanced to within an inch of the interviewer's face.

"We were penalized out of a championship in 1990, when we weren't in violation of any performance issue," said Martin, recalling the unapproved manifold that resulted in one of the rare times NASCAR has taken points away for a post-race rules violation. "Another year, we were racing the most fierce competitor of all - Dale Earnhardt. We were desperately trying to win, but we were only in our third year and Dale Earnhardt was at his very best."

Martin paused for breath.

"You don't win these things when you go against the very best at their very best," he said. "When you go against Richard Petty at his best - ask Darrell Waltrip. He couldn't win a title against R.P. at his best. You win them when R.P. isn't at his best. That's when Darrell Waltrip won and others won titles, when Darrell wasn't at his best."

Martin has finished second in the Winston Cup championship race three times. He has been unlucky enough to be at his best at the same time Earnhardt was at his in 1990 and 1994 and when Jeff Gordon was rolling up the largest points total (5,328) in the sport's history in 1998.

"I didn't panic and neither did my team," Martin growled. "It's irritating because those guys don't know what they're talking about."

Now the 20-year veteran is livid, but he doesn't want to be. He doesn't even acknowledge that he is.

"I really don't care what people think," he said. "Maybe I'm not good enough to win a championship, but I've won more trophies than some guys who have won two championships. Some of those guys haven't won as many races as I have, but they have championships. What have they had that I haven't? Luck. I'm not Darrell Waltrip."

Actually, Martin's 33 wins are better than seven of the sport's 24 champions, including two-time titlists Terry Labonte (21 wins) and Joe Weatherly (24).

And Martin, 43, is once more second in the championship race, 62 points behind Sterling Marlin as the series advances toward the season's halfway point today in the Pepsi 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

It is something of an amazing place to find him. Last season was one of his most disappointing. He didn't win a race and finished 12th in points. It was his worst performance since 1988.

But this season has been different. And when he is talking about his team and his performance, the darkness leaves his blue eyes and a smile cracks his stern face.

"We have more engine power," he said, explaining his revival. "We have a better handling car. And, we have better pit stops. That boils down to a faster car and I'm not losing time in the pits."

And the driver?

"The driver is the same," he said. "I didn't just get smarter. I don't think Sterling is leading the points and I'm second because of more experience. I think we're there because we have good cars. Obviously, we've made fewer mistakes than some - but not fewer than Jeff Gordon or Bobby Labonte. It's just that I'm driving a faster car. I think that's why we're where we are right now."

This might be his year, or not. A lot of people are saying it is the year of the young drivers. Martin can't say about that. But he is absolutely sure if he doesn't win it won't be because he or his team pushed any panic button.

"If I have an advantage," he said, "it's that I've had worse than average luck, and there is always a chance for a coin flipping and landing on the other side. That could determine this championship. It's going to be the guy who doesn't have the flat tire, who didn't break the dollar part. It isn't going to be because someone was young and dumb or old and wise - though I won't say someone won't say that after the fact."

Lineup

NASCAR Pepsi 400

At Daytona Beach, Fla. Lap length: 2.5 miles (Car number in parentheses; race tonight) 1. (29) Kevin Harvick, Chevrolet, 185.041 mph.

2. (09) Geoffrey Bodine, Ford, 184.373.

3. (24) Jeff Gordon, Chevrolet, 184.271.

4. (31) Robby Gordon, Chevrolet, 184.268.

5. (88) Dale Jarrett, Ford, 184.245.

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