By Bruce Martin
November 16, 2009

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- The look on Mark Martin's face when he climbed out of his No. 5 Chevrolet at Phoenix International Raceway certainly didn't look like a man who was frustrated by the fact he probably isn't going to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup title.

After all, this season is all about fun and satisfaction for the 50-year-old Martin, who will probably finish second in the Cup standings for the fifth time in his career. He enters the season's final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway 108 points behind Jimmie Johnson.

For Martin to win the championship, he will have to win the final race of the season, lead the most laps and have Johnson finish 25th or worst. But that scenario isn't playing inside of Martin's head.

"I'm not worried about it," he said on Sunday. "I've talked about this a million times. We've had a great race today and I'm proud of what we did. I'm very privileged to be driving a race car like that. I'm pleased with the effort. We've had a couple good days this year.

"I'm not really worried about winning a championship," he reiterated. "I'm going to do the same thing I did today when I go to Homestead next week. I'm just going to race for it. I'm proud of what we did here today. We passed a lot of cars and got passed very few times. It was a fun race car to drive."

Martin realizes that Johnson's bid for a fourth-straight championship is NASCAR history. If he were to stop that streak, Martin wants to do it by outracing Johnson -- he doesn't want to win by default if Johnson is involved in a crash that takes him out of the race. That happened two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway, where Johnson crashed on the third lap and, after lengthy repairs, finished in 38th.

At Phoenix, however, Johnson's No. 48 Chevrolet was in front of the field four times, for 238 laps in the 312-lap contest. While Martin never led a lap, he improved six positions after starting 10th.

"It was a good run," Martin said. "It was a great run; a great team effort with a really great race car. That last run is what we needed, but the car got a little tight.

"I really thought I could get to him -- that it was going to be a four-car race there. With 35 laps to go I thought it would be a race, but it kind of fizzled out. I'm very satisfied though."

Martin has finished second in the championship to the late Dale Earnhardt in 1990 and 1994, to Jeff Gordon in 1998 and was runner-up to Tony Stewart in 2002. All three are considered among the greatest drivers in NASCAR history, but Martin believes he is about to finish second to a driver who may be better than them all.

"I think he is under-rated," Martin said. "I think Jimmie Johnson is under-rated and under-appreciated... I have definitely been beat by the best -- Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt. It won't embarrass me if I lose a title to Jimmie Johnson as well.

"Things are quite different right now, but no one from my experience -- from 1981 until now -- no one has been able to sustain the kind of performance Jimmie has because it is very, very difficult to do," Martin said. "It might come unraveled at any time but I don't see that. I see it continuing for some time."

Team owner Rick Hendrick understands Martin's position, explaining that the driver's age has influenced his perspective on things.

"There comes a time when you've been through enough things in life, you want to do the best you can, but you're happy to be where you are. And Mark is really happy. He's won a lot of races. He's shown everybody how talented he is. Boy, we're just very fortunate to have him in the organization.

"Mark is happy in his skin," Hendrick continued. "He is comfortable with his life. He is comfortable with his family. But he is a perfectionist. I think that's what you see in everything he does."

Martin, the perfectionist, will probably fall short in the championship to his Hendrick teammate. But don't expect him to stop trying in 2010. Says Martin: "I have to find a way to work harder. I have to dig deeper, I have to find some more."

Apparently, the "imminent deal" that would bring IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick to a limited ARCA and Nationwide Series schedule with JR Motorsports isn't so "imminent" after all, Rick Hendrick announced at Phoenix International Raceway on Sunday.

Patrick, who signed a three-year contract extension to remain with Michael Andretti's IndyCar Series team in September, lives near PIR, in Scottsdale, Ariz. The past three years, Patrick has stopped by the track during the NASCAR weekend to check things out and see some of her racing friends, including former IndyCar champions Sam Hornish, Jr. and Tony Stewart.

But this year, Patrick was nowhere to be seen, perhaps taking advice from her agent at IMG to keep a low profile. A Patrick sighting would have created a media brushfire. Instead, Hendrick doused the rumors that a deal with Patrick for a part-time Nationwide Series ride was happening.

When asked if there has been a letter of intent agreed to, Hendrick said, "No letter of intent or nothing."

Hendrick claimed that Patrick is committed to the IndyCar Series and aims to one day win the Indianapolis 500. While she wants to try NASCAR, Hendrick admitted, that may not happen in 2010.

When asked if the change in plans occurred because Patrick wants too much money for a part-time ride in NASCAR's second tier, Hendrick said that her paycheck is relative to the amount of sponsorship she can generate.

"That all depends on what she can bring," Hendrick said. "Drivers have a worth and it can be in a marketing value and it can be in talent behind the wheel and it all is measured by how much support they have.

"I don't think, from my limited involvement, money has been a big issue. I see her as wanting to make the right move, not being in a hurry, not saying that she can come out here and run a Cup car and whip these guys. She is very smart and she is very talented in a lot of ways.

"She is doing it in a very methodical way and I have not seen her make any mistakes yet and we're all just looking at how it could be good for everybody if this is the place and JR Motorsports is where she ends up."

While Patrick has agreed to remain in IndyCar, her "official announcement" won't be made until after Nov. 30 because of various legal arrangements.

ARCA officials also added that, while it is still early, they have not received an entry form listing Patrick as a driver in the season-opening ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway in February. That is speculated to be Patrick's first race in a stock car.

On Friday, Ron Hornaday Jr. became the first driver to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship four times, with wins in 1996, 1998 and 2007. At 51, Hornaday's victory also made him the oldest driver in NASCAR history to win a national touring series championship.

After the win, Hornaday reflected back on his career, noting that he helped his current team owner, Kevin Harvick, get his start. Hornaday and his wife, Lindy,have a long tradition of opening their Lake Norman, N.C., home to aspiring NASCAR drivers, and when Harvick moved east from Bakersfield, Calif., he slept on the Hornaday's sofa.

Another driver closing in on a fourth NASCAR championship also spent his time on the Hornaday's sofa. "Jimmie [Johnson] slept on the couch so I would like to see him win four too," Hornaday mentioned.

Considering the championship drivers who have slept on that couch, one might think that it should be donated to the NASCAR Hall of Fame. But it hasn't always offered good luck:

"We had a good friend, Blake Feese, sleep on it and he went back that Monday morning and got fired from Hendrick," Hornaday recalled.

Still, whether or not the couch was why he succeeded, Harvick realizes that without the Hornadays opening their home to him, he might not be in the position he is today.

"You go over there and there are still a lot of people and their house is always open," Harvick said of the Hornadays. "It's always been that way. What you see is what you get with Ron and Lindy and the whole family. It's always been one big family and if you want to be a part of it then come on over. That's just the way they've always been. Always been the same is what you can say.

Ultimately, Hornaday's good nature is why he deserves the championship, Harvick says. "It's pretty cool, he's got a great following here and I know we've got a lot of fans here. It's fun to be able to win the race and win the championship and I know there are a lot of fans that appreciate that in this particular area."

"I was driving a bucket of (crap)." -- Kyle Busch, on his Nationwide Series car that he crashed early in Saturday's race. Because of the accident, Busch was unable to clinch the 2009 Nationwide Series championship at Phoenix.

"I'll take care of him. I got it. He'll learn the hard way. I run these races for fun and he's trying to get second in the points there. I'm racing for a Chase and he's racing to make sure he stays in the seat. I'm just going to do my job and if the opportunity arises, I'm going to handle the situation, the way I should. The way anybody else would." -- Denny Hamlin on Brad Keselowski after the two drivers continued their feud at Phoenix.

"That's probably the most impressed I've ever been with NASCAR. I honestly will say that and I'm not brainwashed in saying that, either. I really respected the fact Brian France (NASCAR chairman) walked in there. That was really the first time I've ever had a conversation with him. Without talking about things that were talked about privately, [he was just] making sure I understood what it takes to make it to this level and how you're going to need friends down the line and make sure you don't alienate everybody. At the same time, you don't want to give up being a hard charger. I think that was the basic tone of the conversation -- trying to find out what it takes to be successful at this level. I certainly don't feel like I have all the answers but I'm doing the best I can and welcome any advice I can get." -- Brad Keselowski on his meeting with NASCAR officials Sunday morning at Phoenix.

Another long, long season will end when the checkered flag drops at Homestead-Miami Speedway. A week from today, the relentless week-after-week NASCAR schedule, Danica Patrick's Soap Opera, Helio Castroneves' acquittal and comeback, Dario Franchitti's thrilling IndyCar Series championship and Jimmie Johnson's (hopefully) fourth-straight NASCAR Sprint Cup title will all be over. Just enough time to get ready for Thanksgiving, Christmas and the Daytona 500, which is 80 days away.

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