Saturday night was, to put it kindly, a bad night for Mark Martin. After running upfront for much of the race, Martin misjudged a pass, clipped another car and slid hard into the inside wall. The damage saw Martin finish a lowly 38th, some 137 laps down to race winner Brad Keselowski. The poor finish saw the driver of the Hendrick Motorsports No. 5 Chevrolet slip a further three points in the standings to 19th, some 77 points out of tenth.
Now, with just two races to go, it’s fair to say that the only way Martin can realistically make the Chase is if he wins both races. Given his stats on the year to date (24 starts, two top-5’s, seven top-10’s, 27 laps led, three DNFs), winning two straight would seem to be an insurmountable hurdle even for a man who has specialized in overcoming overwhelming odds his entire career.
As things stand, Martin has no firm plans for 2012 and he might yet drive a partial schedule: splitting seat time with Danica Patrick in a third SHR car might not be beyond the realms of possibility, especially given the shared sponsor in GoDaddy. If he opts to look for a full schedule it seems unlikely he’ll be in equipment that will be title challenging given the full houses at the other power teams. So this really does look like the last time Martin will run for the title that has eluded him across 29 years and 814 (and counting) races.
After a five win, second-place finish in 2009, much was expected in 2010. No wins, seven top-5’s and just 11 top-10’s of a Chase-less season later, Martin lost the man who helped him to five of his 40 total Sprint Cup wins. And with no disrespect to Lance McGrew and the members of the No. 5 team and crew, it does seem that Mark Martin got the bad end of the Dale Earnhardt, Jr. crew chief shuffle, especially given the way that both Gordon and Junior have run – both being ensconced in Chase positions with just two to go.
The truth is, though, that in many ways it doesn’t matter that Mark Martin is not going to win a Sprint Cup Championship. The simple fact is Mark Martin will always be a champion. He’s done things right and he has the almost universal respect of his peers, the fans and just about anyone else involved in the great sport of NASCAR. The man himself would disagree: “I’m no champion,” said Martin. “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 that I made them work for it and I saw them finish behind me many a time. And that I can be proud of.”
Such longevity of success is indeed something to be proud of. Winning a Sprint Cup race is extremely tough; winning forty of them across three decades is not something that happens by accident. But despite all his success, Martin looks destined to be remembered as one of the greatest “never” to win a title. He’s also finished second five times so it’s not like he hasn’t been close. So, perhaps there is one last miracle left and Martin will win both of the next two races. However, even if there isn’t, it will still be fine. Like I say, Mark Martin will always be a champion regardless of what the record books say.
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