People's choice, Mark Martin, showing softer side
Mark Martin senses that this is going to be a good week for him as he continues chasing Jimmie Johnson and the NASCAR season championship he so covets. If he's right, it would only add to what has been an emotional ride for the 50-year-old Martin, who has largely discarded his curmudgeonly shell in his return to full-time racing with Hendrick Motorsports and shown a softer, even somewhat sappy side on a regular basis. "It's because I'm not tired, I'm not burned out, not frustrated," he said at Martinsville. "I'm enjoying the opportunity and I appreciate it more than I ever did before." Johnson gained 28 points on the final short track of the season to extend his lead to 118 over Martin with four races to go, but the series shifts to Talladega Superspeedway, the last wild card on the schedule, where one big wreck could really shake things up. "I have a feeling that I'm going to have a great Talladega race," Martin said. "I don't know if our competition will or not. But I wrecked on lap five last time there. I've got a feeling that just isn't going to happen this time. The law of averages is going to get you sooner or later and I think I've got some good karma going in there. I'm very optimistic. "It could be a great equalizer." It would be a development that would be widely celebrated among NASCAR fans, who have embraced Martin as the sentimental favorite - a stature that can stop him in his tracks. "That's an incredible honor," he said. "And it's also a little bit of pressure. It means so much to me that they feel that way that I desperately don't want to disappoint them." Without a doubt, Martin stands as the best driver never to win a championship, and his close calls are well documented. He's finished second four times, losing out by 26 points to Dale Earnhardt in 1990, and by 38 points to Tony Stewart in his last close call in 2002. In 1990, his team incurred a 46-point penalty after a race at Richmond for using an illegal carburetor spacer, even though NASCAR agreed it had not enhanced his performance. Martin has also finished third four times, and in the top five another five times. His return to full-time racing this season came after he landed a ride with Hendrick, joining a stable of teams that includes Johnson, who is seeking his record fourth consecutive series championship, and Jeff Gordon, who has already won four, but none since 2001. What has happened since is fairy tale stuff: Five victories, one behind Johnson for the series lead, and his first since 2005. Seven poles, 12 top-five finishes and 19 top-10s. "It's amazing, and beyond my expectations," he said. "It's really an honor. I've said all that all year long. People may be getting tired of hearing that, but it's the truth." In the Hendrick shop, it's a story that even Johnson and Gordon are caught up in. Johnson is viewed in some circles as the villain who could deny Martin a title, and said even though he roots for his teammates, he's not letting up in his own drive to win again. "I certainly root for him if I'm not having the day, and the same for Jeff," Johnson said. "I have not thought about being the guy who could take away someone's opportunity." Gordon, who beat Martin for the title by 364 points in 1998, thinks all the drivers and teams are watching with interest, and that several are rooting for Martin to win. "I don't think there is anybody more deserving than Mark Martin," he said. "But (Johnson's) team, they've earned the position they're in," he added. "They've worked hard at it. They're a great, great team and I think they're in a position to make history. "I think there is something very special about that." Martin finished eighth at Martinsville, a disappointing finish considering he ran near the front for much of the race, but heads to Alabama with no intention of changing his approach. Revered for the way he races, he's not given to trying desperate measures. The suggestion that he would brought out his old drill sergeant-like persona. "I am racing with everything I got, and if I could find a way to be better, I would," he said. "And I will continue to look and search for anyway I can, going forward, to find a way to be better yet, but all I can do is put it out there. That's all I can do. I will put it out there and race with every bit of fire. Because I don't cause a lot of stink on the racetrack doesn't mean I don't race without a lot of fire. ... I race with everything I've got." And when it's not enough, he no longer lets his disappointment consume him. "I still get disappointed, OK?" he said. "I still get disappointed, and we have met with many disappointments this year, but I don't dwell on the disappointment and I revel in the opportunity. ... It's less about me, and that comes with age and maturity. What I'm doing today is a lot less about me and a lot more about the people that I care about. "I'm trying as hard as I ever did. I'm just not frustrated about it."