Is this the Year for Mark Martin?
Mark Martin is leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship standings heading into Race 4 at California (photo courtesy: Todd Warshaw, Getty Images Sport)
A NASCAR Championship four-peat by Jimmie Johnson would be historic at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22. A Sprint Cup Championship for Juan Pablo Montoya would be revolutionary. Yet, the best ending for NASCAR might be if 50-year-old Mark Martin, returning to a full-time schedule after running a partial schedule the past two seasons, is crowned NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22.
While he entered the Chase for the Sprint Cup with the points lead - based on winning more races this season than any other driver - Martin has yet to consider what it would be like to hold the NASCAR Sprint Cup champion’s trophy in Victory Lane at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 22 as cameras flash, confetti falls and fireworks explode.
"I've had a lot of things go wrong in my career," Martin said of his failed NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship campaigns.
Martin, who drives for Hendrick Motorsports, has had his share of near-misses at the Sprint Cup title. He finished second in the points four different times, finished less than 100 points behind the eventual title winner three times and twice NASCAR penalties hurt his title chances. That's what could make him one of the more endearing NASCAR Sprint Cup contenders for fans, bridging the sport's young and older base.
It's easy to root for a driver who can be considered an underdog. Many view Martin as the best driver to never have won a championship. Only one other driver has won more Cup races than Martin and not won a crown: Junior Johnson scored 50 wins but never finished in the Top 5 in points. Martin has 39 wins but more heartbreak.
"I didn't take this job with hopes and dreams of winning the championship," he said. "I took it because I knew it was going to be a fast race car, and I wanted to drive a fast race car and have a chance to win another race.''
Here is a brief look back at some of Martin’s NASCAR Championship setbacks and a glimpse of why a NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship for Martin – to be crowned at Homestead-Miami Speedway – would be so wildly popular.
The most famous second-place run is probably the 1990 NASCAR Championship loss to Dale Earnhardt Sr. by only 24 points. Martin was in command of the title chase a 46point penalty earlier in the season for an illegal carburetor proved to be his undoing. Earnhardt and Martin battled down to the wire for the 1990 NASCAR Winston Cup, but the unflinching Earnhardt prevailed, taking the title from Martin in the last two races of the season.
Driving for owner Jack Roush, Martin's average finish position that year was 6.55, a mark that has never been matched by another Roush driver. He racked up 23 Top-10 finishes and three victories but still fell to Earnhardt Sr. at season’s end.
Earnhardt won his record-tying seventh NASCAR Winston Cup Series championship in grand fashion. Virtually unchallenged all season, Earnhardt successfully defended his 1993 championship and made a case to be recognized as the greatest NASCAR driver ever as he matched Richard Petty's seven championship seasons.
Earnhardt pulled away from his nearest rival during the final stretch of the season and finished over 400 points ahead of NASCAR Championship runner-up Martin.
NASCAR's 50th Anniversary season will be forever remembered as a season for the ages, complete with one of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series' most dominant performances by a single driver. Jeff Gordon captured his third NASCAR Championship in four years. That season saw Gordon tie Richard Petty's modern-era record with 13 wins.
As was the case in 1997, Mark Martin and Dale Jarrett were Gordon's nearest pursuers, but unlike the previous year, the championship would be decided before the final event of the season. Martin placed second to Gordon despite tying his personal best for driver's points. He trailed Gordon by 364 points at season’s end.
In 2002, he was edged out for the big prize by Tony Stewart who bested him by 38 points. Stewart entered the season-ending finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway leading the standings by 89 points.
Stewart's 18th-place finish was hardly a display of automotive authority. But it was enough to clinch the 2002 NASCAR Winston Cup championship despite a valiant effort by challenger Mark Martin, who charged from 34th to fourth but was not able to overhaul Stewart in the final standings.
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