As Jimmie Johnson’s car was careening across the track at Texas, Mark Martin fans were already re-calculating how this turn of events could renew his championship hopes.
While Johnson’s car was smashing against the inside retaining wall, championship points were being twittered to Mark Martin’s account.
The early Christmas present wasn’t a full-blown assault on Johnson’s points lead, but it was enough to remove Martin's championship hopes from life support.
The final two races are possibly another chapter in the career long saga of Mark Martin and his futile attempts at a Sprint Cup title.
Martin’s failures, if they could be considered failures, are not from lack of trying, but more from a lack of capitalizing, and the presence of three future Hall of Fame drivers.
Twenty-six points was all that separated Martin from the championship trophy collected by Dale Earnhardt Sr. in 1990. A penalty of 46 points at Richmond, for an unapproved spacer, is said to have cost Martin the championship.
Seven years later, Jeff Gordon would hoist the hardware in New York. Martin finished third in the standings that year; a paltry 29 points in arrears.
It was a mere 63 points that allowed Tony Stewart to be the final driver walking across the stage in 2002.
In each of these three examples, the eventual winners are in an elite group, but given 36 opportunities throughout the year, the margin of victory was in no way insurmountable.
Wins were not a problem during Martin’s career, nor were they part of the solution. In the 16 years he drove for Jack Roush, Martin’s GPS took him to victory lane 35 times, but still no championship.
Starting the chase with the points lead, and then following it up with a win at New Hampshire, and a second place finish at Dover, Martin certainly occupied the cat bird’s seat. Then came Charlotte, Martinsville and of course, the DNF at Talladega.
Once again Martin is faced with a future Hall of Fame driver, a small point’s deficit, and only two races to make a difference.
Phoenix could not only be the deciding race for Martin’s championship hopes, it could also be his final chance ever.
A two-year contract extension with HMS assures Martin at least two more opportunities. Those opportunities are at best, a steep uphill battle.
There is no doubt Jimmie Johnson will win more championships. That alone is Martin’s biggest obstacle in his final two years. If that’s not enough, factor in making the chase, and then mix in names like Gordon, Busch, and Stewart.
Martin must throw caution to the wind at Phoenix and pull out all the stops. Finishing ahead of Johnson should be top priority. Leading the most laps and winning the race must also factor highly into the equation.
Failure at Phoenix will almost certainly impact Martin’s legacy and permanently relegate him to be known as one of the best driver’s who never won a championship.
Photo Credit: David Yeazell