'Blessed,' but no title

Martin likely to just miss winning a championship

November 17, 2009|By Jim Peltz | Tribune Newspapers

AVONDALE, Ariz. — — Mark Martin often says he's "blessed," and for good reason.

The driver from Batesville, Ark., has competed in NASCAR's top league for more than 25 years, amassing 40 victories, nearly $73 million in race winnings and a reputation as a fan favorite.

But it also appears likely that, once again, Martin will fall short of the one goal that has eluded him: winning a championship.

Martin, 50, was in striking distance of catching teammate Jimmie Johnson for the lead in NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup playoff, but Johnson all but clinched the title Sunday with his win at Phoenix International Raceway.

Johnson widened his lead over Martin to 108 points from 73 as the Cup series heads to its season finale Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.

Johnson needs to finish only 25th or higher to win the championship, regardless of how Martin and four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who's third in the Chase and 169 points back, fare.

If Martin finishes second, it will be the fifth time in his career that he has been runner-up in the championship fight.

After finishing fourth in his No. 5 Chevrolet in Sunday's race, Martin had little to say other than "I'm proud of what we've accomplished. It was a good car and a great effort by this race team, and we gave it everything we had today."

But he had said before the race that no matter how the season ended, "I'm going to look at 2009 and say I've had the best year of my life personally as well as professionally."

After two years in which he ran a partial schedule and mulled the prospect of retirement, Martin signed with NASCAR powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports for a full season this year to take another swing at the title.

The effort started badly for Martin, with two 40th-place finishes in the first three races of the Cup series' 36-race schedule.

But then he won the spring race at Phoenix International in April, the first of five victories - and 20 overall top-10 finishes - this season that put him firmly in championship contention.

Keeping pace with Johnson, however, would require even more. Johnson's win Sunday was his seventh of the season, and the El Cajon, Calif., native is on course to win a record fourth Cup consecutive championship.

After the race, Johnson and team owner Rick Hendrick were asked how Martin might feel after coming so close to a title and, it would appear, coming up short.

"The man wants it, we've all seen it," Johnson said. "I think with his experience, he's done a very good job separating the emotions of wanting to win it. I commend Mark and his attitude."

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