Mark Martin was an unknown racing refugee from the Ozarks when he arrived in Nashville in the summer of ‘81 and made his first big NASCAR splash.
He won the pole for the Cup race at the Fairgrounds in just his third big-league start. And the rest, as they say, is history — though a bitter history at times.
Over the years Martin has won a heap of races in various divisions but has never claimed a championship in NASCAR’s top series. He has finished second an excruciating five times, including the just-completed ’09 season to Jimmie Johnson.
After his latest come-close effort someone referred to Martin as “Mr. Second Place.”
I suppose that’s accurate — just as it’s accurate when the media refers to Mark for the umpteenth time as “the greatest driver never to win a championship.” But it shouldn’t define him nor diminish his accomplishments.
I remember what the great Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry said about critics who chastised him for losing so many Big Games: “You’ve got to get there to lose it.”
Ditto for Mark Martin. The fact that he has come so close so many times is an accomplishment unto itself. But for a slip here or a slide there, Martin would have won the championship in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.
This past season he overcame a slow start to take the points lead going into the final 10-race Chase for the Championship. He held it until the fourth race when he was overtaken by teammate and eventual champion Johnson.
Martin had lulled in semi-retirement for two seasons before saddling up full-time again last season at age 50. Now he plans to race for (at least) two more years.
A few years ago Martin and I collaborated on a book, Mark of Excellence, in which he bared his sole about a life marked by triumph and marred by tragedy. One of the things he confessed was how painful it had been to come so close so many times to a title he treasured, only to have his hopes dashed and his heart broke. He vowed he would never do it again.
Like an old fire horse, Martin was unable to resist the clang of the bell — in this case a chance to drive a top-flight car fielded by powerful Hendrick Motorsports.
Martin says he’s not down and discouraged by yet another runner-up finish. He says can live happily without a championship if that’s the way it’s ordained. He has nothing to prove and doesn’t need a big shiny trophy to verify anything.
But man, wouldn’t it be great if he could finally get one?
Woody is a Nashville sports writer who has covered racing since the early 1970s.