Friday November 13th, 2009

It was 19 years ago that 31-year-old Mark Martin was oh-so-close to his first Cup championship.

With two races left in the 1990 season, Martin, who was driving for a relatively new owner on the scene, named Jack Roush, led Dale Earnhardt Sr. by 46 points as the circuit headed to the Arizona desert. All Martin had to do was to keep that vaunted No. 3 Chevy within his sights and he'd cruise to the title -- a title that looked to be the first of many for this young, slightly built, up-and-coming racer from Batesville, Ark.

But then, the ultra-aggressive Earnhardt roared past Martin. The Intimidator won that race at Phoenix; Martin came in 10th and trailed by six points heading into the season-finale in Atlanta. If Martin could finish a mere two-spots ahead of Earnhardt, he'd be the champ. But it didn't happen. Earnhardt out-raced Martin that November day in Georgia -- he finished third, while Martin wound up sixth -- and Earnhardt won the Cup by 26 points. Thus began Martin's hard luck life in NASCAR, where, for nearly two decades, he's held the dreaded title of Best Driver To Never Have Won A Championship.

Ever since losing out on that Cup back in 1990, Martin has consistently proclaimed that he's focused on winning races, not season titles. Remember: Martin is as old school as an open-faced driver's helmet. He raced in backwater circuits throughout the South for years before landing a quality ride in the Cup series at 29. He's all about the racing, the event itself, the lap-by-lap tests of determination, guile and guts. Get him going on why he loves racing, and Martin can wax on and on for hours without ever mentioning the word championship.

But something seems different now with Martin, even if he doesn't say it. There he was, a few weeks ago in Charlotte, climbing out of his No. 5 Chevy after finishing a disappointing 17th to fall from 12 points to 90 points behind Jimmie Johnson, who had won that night. Martin politely answered a few questions for the television cameras, but as soon they left, his demeanor changed. He was, frankly, profoundly pissed, which was understandable. As he walked toward his motor coach in the infield, I asked him what he thought about Johnson's performance. After looking at me as if I'd just insulted a member of his family, he said, "Don't know. You tell me."

Martin knew that he might have lost the championship that night; his body language suggested that. But he's come so close so many times -- he has finished second in the final standings four times -- that maybe saying he doesn't focus on championships has almost become a defense mechanism, a way to soften the disappointment of yet another potential second-place finish. Martin isn't in as good of position now as he was in the fall of 1990, but he's still in the hunt. Very much so.

Martin trails Johnson by 73 points. No question, this is a big gap to close on the three-time defending champ, but Martin excels at Phoenix and Homestead-Miami, the last two stops in 2009. He led the most laps and won at PIR in the spring and his career average finish at Homestead (12.0) is higher than Johnson's (13.6). "We can go head-to-head with them," Martin says. "No doubt about it. In Phoenix, we led the most laps and won the last time there, and we have no reason to think we can't run strong at Homestead."

To put the pressure on Johnson and his No. 48 crew, Martin needs to start fast on Sunday. If he can win the pole and lead some early laps, it will force Johnson to run hard and put his car in places that, if his lead were bigger, he wouldn't. Qualifying will be telling. Last week at Texas, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, didn't spend as much time working on their qualifying setup as other teams did, and it came back to haunt them. Johnson qualified 12th, which is respectable, but that put him right behind Sam Hornish Jr., who qualified 11th. Hornish wound up putting Johnson into the wall after he was tapped from behind by David Reutimann, so don't expect the No. 48 team to pursue the same strategy this weekend.

If Martin doesn't storm to an early lead, then Johnson can afford to be somewhat conservative and risk-averse. Furthermore, if Johnson finishes an average of 10th over these final two races, Martin would have to win one race and come in second in the other to take the title from Johnson. It's a tall mountain for Martin to climb, absolutely, but it's doable.

"There could still be swings in the points," Martin says. "There are two races left; you never know what's going to happen."

Will 2009 have a different outcome for Martin than 1990? At least for one race, I say it will. He's my pick to take the checkers on Sunday, which would make the final weekend of the season a lot more heart pounding for a certain three-time defending champ.

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