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ICON Martin staying positive in his final race season



Published: Fri, June 10, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Regrets are not part of Martin's makeup. He simply straps himself into his Ford each week and does his best.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Mark Martin is sixth in Nextel Cup points, but that's not something that interests him much at this point in his final season.

Sure, a third-place finish last Sunday at Dover International Speedway helped him immensely in his bid to make the 26-race cut and be part of the 10-man field that will decide the championship in the last 10 races. However, if Martin has learned anything in nearly two decades on NASCAR's elite circuit, it's patience.

Never was that attribute more evident in the 46-year-old driver than a year ago, when he ended a 72-race losing streak before rallying to join the Chase for the Championship.

Martin could be tempted to say he deserved a slightly better career fate, one that would have made him a champion. He finished second in the points four times -- losing by 26 points one year and 38 another -- third on four other occasions and was in the top 10 for 12 straight seasons.

But regrets are not part of his makeup. He simply straps himself into his Ford each week and does his best.

"It's been a great ride," he said.

Honor among gentlemen

Martin probably is the most respected driver on the circuit, a man who always has wanted to win through sheer determination. His 34 career victories are not tainted by wrongdoing, a rarity among NASCAR drivers.

Eight years ago at Dover, he stalked eventual winner Ricky Rudd, riding inches behind him over the closing laps. Just a seemingly innocent touch of Rudd's bumper exiting any of the high-banked turns would have spun him out and given Martin the victory.

But Martin wouldn't do it.

"That would be cheating," he said at the time. "I wasn't raised that way."

Strong devotion

Car owner Jack Roush saw a lot of potential when he chose Martin in 1988 to launch an operation that grew into NASCAR's largest and now includes Nextel Cup cars for series champion Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards.

"Mark Martin is the man," Roush said. "He's the cornerstone of Roush Racing. I love Mark Martin. He's been the center of my racing life."

In fact, as Roush sees his younger drivers winning titles, he blames himself for Martin going to his final season without one. He's grateful Martin hung with him in the years before the team was solidly established.

"The commitment Mark made to me and to Roush Racing was huge," he said. "I owe Mark more than he owes me."

Chasing the dream

An association as lengthy as theirs is a rarity in NASCAR, but it's still working well and Martin hasn't abandoned the quest for that elusive title in his final season.

"I still feel that we can win," he said. "If I didn't, we wouldn't still be racing."

He doesn't plan to leave NASCAR after this year. Sponsorship is being sought that would put him in the less time-consuming Craftsman Truck series.

Starting with Sunday's Pocono 500, he's got another 23 Nextel Cup races to look forward to, approaching each with the intensity of a rookie. But Martin is a realist.

"I know each time that I win a race, that could be the last one," he said.




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