Though ahead, Martin feels like he's losing it

Points leader knows what it's like to get close but fail

Auto Racing

September 26, 2002|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Winston Cup drivers are usually positive people, but sometimes history can fill one with self-doubt and cynicism. Mark Martin is the one.

All season, the series points race has been close. Now, with eight races to go, it is even closer. But despite finagling one win and 17 top-10 finishes into first place with two months left in the season, Martin isn't optimistic.

"When it comes to competition and getting your heart broken, I'm an eternal pessimist," said Martin, who stretched a six-point lead to 30 on Sunday by finishing second to Jimmie Johnson at Dover International Speedway. "I don't think I padded my lead [at Dover]. I think I lost because Johnson gained on us. I know I gained on Sterling [Marlin], but to me, I still lost ground. That's just how I operate.

"This business has dealt me some very cruel and heartbreaking blows, and it's not going to this year, because I just won't - I'm prepared for whatever happens."

A week ago, the top five spots in the standings were separated by 67 points. Now, heading into the Protection One 400 at Kansas Speedway on Sunday, the margin between first-place Martin, with 3,720 points, and fifth-place Jeff Gordon is 190. It is still the closest chase with eight races left since the current points system was put in effect in 1975.

But while Johnson, a rookie, and veterans Tony Stewart (third), Marlin (fourth) and Gordon talk about how they can still win this title, Martin and his owner, Jack Roush, do not.

They hesitate to say anything that might make it appear they believe they can win.

"We've got a string of one race," said Roush, after Martin kept the lead for a second week.

A one-race string is an accomplishment. The last time Martin held the points lead this late in the season was in 2000. That year, he lost it after one week and finished eighth in the standings.

Martin has always been the can-miss driver of Winston Cup racing. He has finished runner-up for the championship three times. It seems every time his team is racing well, someone else is racing better.

So maybe this is the year. There is no perennial champion to beat him, as the late Dale Earnhardt did in 1990 and 1994, and no one rolling up a record point total, as Gordon did in 1998.

In 1998, Martin had a fantastic year, winning seven races, but Gordon won 13 and outpointed him, 5,328-4,964.

But Martin, 43, proved last weekend that he can overcome a poor starting slot when he qualified badly and still moved up from 32nd place through traffic on Dover's unforgiving one-mile, high-banked oval.

"Mark has done a good job recovering from adversity, and we haven't fallen out of races," Roush said. "That's really the reason we're in contention. ...

"There hasn't been anybody that's just really made a big run. We're hoping that we can do that now, that we can get ready and go win some of these races that are left and run up front all day."

But it's only a hope.

Certainly, it is time for Martin to win. A look inside the Winston Cup record book tells you he probably should have been a champion by now. With 33 victories to his credit, he knows how to win races. Only the fabled Junior Johnson, who won 50 times, has more victories than Martin without a series title.

But part of winning is believing. No rookie has ever won the Winston Cup title, but Jimmie Johnson said he "needs to take advantage of this opportunity" and believes he can.

Martin has to overcome his doubts, which seem to intrude on every positive thought he has.

"I'm so proud of this team," he said. "We're going to bust our butt to win this championship, but ... we've already done more than we probably hoped to accomplish with that big win in Charlotte [the Coca-Cola 600].

"But this is great. I hoped to be able to make the stage in New York, and we're on track to do that. Anything in the top 10, but certainly this is the best crack at it I've had in a while."

Standings

NASCAR Winston Cup

(Through Sunday)

1. Mark Martin 3,720 .......... 11. Dale Jarrett 3,410

2. Jimmie Johnson 3,690 .. 12. Kurt Busch 3,399

3. Tony Stewart 3,646 ........ 13. Jeff Burton 3,201

4. Sterling Marlin 3,639 ..... 14. D. Earnhardt Jr. 3,141

5. Jeff Gordon 3,530 .......... 15. Michael Waltrip 3,130

6. Rusty Wallace 3,522 ....... 16. Ricky Craven 3,120

7. Ryan Newman 3,495 ....... 17. Jeff Green 2,957

8. Matt Kenseth 3,485 ........ 18. Bobby Labonte 2,926

9. Bill Elliott 3,463 ............... 19. Dave Blaney 2,855

10. Ricky Rudd 3,439 ........... 20. Robby Gordon 2,833

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