Despite gaining 111 points on defending champion Jimmie Johnson in Sprint Cup points after the Dickies 500 at Texas, Mark Martin isn't expecting his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to gift-wrap the title based on one poor performance.
Rather, the one they call "The Kid" is expecting a fight in the final two races just to stay a bridesmaid.
"I still have got my hands full for the top-six positions with all those guys—two guys that knocked me out of championships are breathing down my neck, so the race is still on," Martin, 50, told the media after the race, in which he finished fourth. "I don't know why everybody tries to cap this thing out and doesn't just wait and watch. There are still two races to go and still things that can happen."
One of those things happened to Johnson early in the race after Sam Hornish Jr. sent him into the wall before the race was five minutes old. Losing dozens of laps while in the garage for repairs, Johnson returned to the track to finish 38th.
What had been a gimme championship, considering Johnson's track record over the past few years, is now slightly more interesting.
True, Martin left 35 points on the table by failing to win and/or lead the most laps at Texas; the No. 5 car didn't see the lead all day. A 38-point difference is much easier to overcome than one of 73 points—in the former scenario, were Martin to win at Phoenix, Johnson would lose the lead by finishing outside of the top five. In reality, Johnson only needs to crack the top 15, something that he has never failed to do at Phoenix.
That's right: Johnson's worst Phoenix finish is 15th, which occurred both in the fall of 2002 and the spring of 2005.
When a driver accrues as many strong finishes as Johnson has over the past few Chases, it's easy and realistic for a driver to concede the title a few weeks early. But if any driver can challenge Johnson, it's going to have to be Martin, who is the only driver within two figures of the three-time champ heading into the final two races of the season.
But while anything can happen (or has happened) to knock challengers out of title contention, even the almighty Jimmie Johnson is not immune to misfortune.
So, while Mark Martin can talk about Johnson's track record all he wants, there's nothing to say that the same exact thing won't happen next weekend at Phoenix. Being realistic is a positive, but resigning oneself to a bridesmaid?
Considering the way that 1990, 1994, 1998, and 2002 worked for him, it seems that second-place finishes are being realistic for NASCAR's elder statesman.