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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: Mark Martin – Time To Change The Legacy

Dubbed the “greatest driver who never won a title,” Mark Martin has once again qualified for a spot in NASCAR’s Nextel Cup Chase to the Championship by virtue of his fifth-place finish at Richmond last Saturday night. The Arkansas native, along with Roush Racing teammate Matt Kenseth and Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson, is one of only three men to have earned the right to compete for a championship all three years the Chase format has been adopted. But while Kenseth already has a title under his belt and Johnson has a decade or more of competition left to win one, Martin finds himself racing with a different sense of urgency as the season begins to reach its climax.

Having already “retired” in 2005, only to change his mind and return full-time for 2006, rumors abound concerning Martin’s driving plans for 2007. Only one thing is known for sure: Martin has ruled out publicly a return to the No. 6 AAA Ford he’s driven exclusively for 19 years under owner and friend Jack Roush. The hottest rumors have Martin returning on a part-time basis in another Roush ride, or possibly lending his services to the struggling Robert Yates Racing organization for one more full season of driving. Regardless of what opportunity the 47-year-old chooses, this much is clear: neither one will likely provide him with another chance at a Nextel Cup title.

That “never won a title” label is somewhat of a misnomer when one considers the veteran’s storied racing career and accomplishments. Martin paved his way to the elite stock car racing series in the world by racing on local dirt-track bullrings around his Batesville, Ark. hometown. It was through this level of competition that, at age 15, Martin won the 1974 Arkansas state championship trophy. That small success was just the beginning; moving up through the ranks, Martin went on to win four American Speed Association (ASA) championships in 1978, 1979, 1980 and 1986 before moving into the Cup Series full-time. Once there, he’s been extended several invitations into the International Race of Champions, rising to the challenge of tough competition to win a record five IROC titles.

That’s not to mention the wins Martin’s racked up through his 25 years of racing in NASCAR’s top series. Not only does Martin have 35 Cup victories, but he’s tacked on an eye-popping 47 wins in NASCAR Busch Series competition. Martin’s win total in the Busch Series is a record, one that will not be equaled or surpassed for a long time to come. Jack Ingram, second on the all-time Busch career wins list, trails Martin by a whopping 16 victories, and no active driver is even close to approaching the mark. There are also Mark’s 13 IROC wins to date, as well as a fledgling Craftsman Truck Series career that has reaped four wins in eight races this season and holds great promise for many championship(s) in the coming years. Martin’s past, present, and future in the sport continues to be nothing short of impressive.

Still, the NASCAR Cup championship has nonetheless eluded Martin. The perennial “bridesmaid” has approached “the altar” numerous times, recording second-place finishes in the season ending Cup standings on four different occasions. Martin has also posted final results of third and fourth three times apiece, falling just short of snagging the first-place finish he covets.

If Martin fails to add a Cup championship to his illustrious career, will it take away from his standing amongst the stock car greats? Regrettably, the answer is yes. Lost in the memories of future writers and fans will be the total embodiment of Martin’s career as both a racecar driver and a man.

Just take a look at NASCAR pioneer Junior Johnson, and you’ll see what Martin has to look forward to if he remains without that title trophy. Johnson was a highly respected wheelman of his era, with 50 victories in an impressive Cup career that lasted over a decade. However, since Johnson never won a championship, his name is routinely omitted from consideration as one of stock car racing’s greatest drivers, and more fans remember him for his ownership role in the sport.

Martin, too, stands to suffer a similar stigma from a historical consideration of his career. The future generations will have no way to know Martin as today’s fans perceive him. All they will have is the record books, and in there will be Martin’s name, with very respectable statistics including, wins, top fives, top 10s and more, but no mention of him under that exclusive listing of NASCAR Cup champions.

No, those numbers in the record books won’t be able to describe how in 1990 Martin lost the championship by a scant 26 points, in large part to being penalized for an unapproved part that was of no mechanical advantage. Future race enthusiasts will probably never know that any of his near-championship efforts could have resulted in finishing first if not for a “I would rather finish an honest second than steal a first” code of driving ethics. Statistics also won’t ever able to capture the incredibly high regard for Martin that both fans and drivers that have competed against him hold. How can a record book ever communicate in digits that kind of respect?

Regardless of the immense admiration that he has earned from fans and competitors Martin will, as the years pass, find that his enviable reputation will be overshadowed by the fact that he never was able to win the big one. To assure that Martin’s outstanding career is fairly appraised by future stock car enthusiasts, as it should be, he will need to be recognized as a champion. Such an opportunity lies in front of him: with the Chase points reset entering New Hampshire, the crafty veteran finds himself only 30 points behind series points leader Kenseth.

In 2006, the AAA Ford Fusion has been dependable, logging no DNFs in what has been another solid season for the No. 6 bunch. In 26 races, Martin has only finished outside the top 20 four times, with 19 top-15, 12 top-10 and six top-five results. Such dependability will be a key to winning this year’s title, as the Chase has proven an early exit from a race can be disastrous to a contender’s championship hopes. There are just too few races to compensate for such a loss in points under the 10-race format.

Martin has yet to win a Cup race this year, with his last victory coming last October at Kansas. However, under the present point system, designed to award consistency, a win is not necessary. In some ways, the current points system for the Chase format favors a driver such as Martin, who is mindful of taking care of his racecar and finishing races.

As the Chase for the title gears up, it might be argued that Martin is simply due for luck to go his way. With all the heartbreak years of the past, perhaps it’s fate he snuck into the title Chase after a lackluster August that nearly saw his season go down the drain. Maybe his selfless decision to delay his previously announced retirement to help Jack Roush transition a driver into the No. 6 seat will be rewarded with the long sought after prize he’s long been seeking.

Whatever is destined to happen, Martin makes no promises as to the final result of this, in all likelihood, his last attempt at a championship. He simply claims he’ll “race as hard as I can” over the next 10 races. Nor does he agonize on his lack of a championship title during his career. When asked whether “the greatest driver who never won a title” would be his legacy, he replied in his usual polite and matter-of-fact manner.

“I refuse to judge myself and my career like that,” Martin said, adding later, “You guys in the media can dwell on it if you like, but I’m not going to. I’m very content with where I am and with what I’ve done. I know I’ve done my very best, and I sleep well at night.”

He has no reason to be apologetic about his career. Certainly, Martin’s accomplishments are deserving of mention amongst the greats with or without a Cup championship. But without the title, inevitably future generations will know him as “the guy they said was the greatest driver that never won a title.” And that will be a shame. We know he is so much more, both as a racecar driver and as a man.

The next 10 races hold for Martin both the opportunity and possibility of securing for himself a new legacy. It’s his final shot to establish a new set of buzzwords for when others reflect on his career.

“Mark Martin… Nextel Cup champion.”