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Driver hopes to put end to run of 'Mark Martin luck'

November 15, 2009|Tania Ganguli

It took only one word for Mark Martin to explain his humility, his pessimism at times and his tendency to insist he's not really that good.

"Experience," Martin said, calmly and quietly, shortly before NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup began.

Martin and teammate Jeff Gordon received a gift Sunday when another teammate, Jimmie Johnson, crashed on the third lap at Texas Motor Speedway. Having entered the race with a 184-point deficit, Martin goes to Phoenix this weekend only 73 points behind leader Johnson.

Whatever Martin says about his championship chances, he has a good opening.

Two races from the end of the season, his first championship is well within his grasp after a fourth-place finish at Texas.

But in true Martin fashion, he didn't see it that way. Instead, he referred to the drivers behind him, close enough to overtake him in points. Martin said after Sunday's race he has "his hands full."

Why? Experience.

This, after all, is a man who had raced in two Daytona 500s and got fired in 1983.

Martin, who lives near Daytona Beach, gazed into the garages through a chain-link fence during the 1984 Daytona 500, heartbroken that he wasn't inside.

He's a man who finished second in the points standings four times but never won a championship via what he wryly calls "Mark Martin luck."

He won seven races in 1998 and didn't win the championship because Gordon won 13.

In a rare moment of optimism two weeks ago, Martin said he felt great about Talladega and was certain his car would avoid a big wreck. He crashed late in the race, flipping upside down in the process.

That's why the man Gordon called "the greatest driver there is" won't admit to himself or others that winning the Cup is a possibility.

"He will beat himself up," Gordon said. "He will say negative things. I never pay any attention to it. He's always way stronger when the race starts than what he claims to be. Now I can tell you, when he says, 'We're pretty good,' you better watch out."

And, oh, by the way, Martin won in Phoenix earlier this year.

"The most fun races I've won are ones we didn't know we were going to win," Martin said.

If he wins it, then this championship will be a blast.

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Still the favorite

Mark Martin is probably the sentimental favorite to win NASCAR's Sprint Cup championship.

The hard-truth favorite? Still Jimmie Johnson.

His team is so good, especially at Phoenix, that the odds of a historic fourth consecutive championship are still quite good.

Johnson leads Martin by 73 points, which means Martin can catch him after this weekend. But even if Martin wins the race, there's no guarantee that will happen.

Remember the face Carl Edwards made in Atlanta last year when, after winning the race, he learned Johnson, who struggled, finished second? (It's the face I imagine Edwards would make if someone told him Christmas was canceled forever and he never was allowed to work out again.)

That face said it all.

Your best isn't good enough against Johnson -- even when he runs into trouble.

Johnson's team had built a large lead heading into Talladega because that's where they knew an early accident could derail them.

It came in handy.

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Who's to judge?

Let's all make a pact not to judge a new crew chief/driver combination in its first few races.

Sometimes a crew chief change shakes things up enough to cause a spike in performance. Sometimes it takes time for chemistry to develop, and success is elusive at first.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran well in new crew chief Lance McGrew's first few races. But that didn't mean the fix was perfect.

Similarly, just because Kyle Busch nearly won last Sunday in Texas before running out of gas doesn't mean Dave Rogers will fix what ails the No. 18 team.

Busch won a lot of races early on with his last crew chief too. He was the best driver in the circuit for a while -- unstoppable even.

They could be the fix. It's just too soon to tell.

--

tganguli@orlandosentinel.com

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