Burton battling friend Martin for title

Published 3:03 pm Thursday, October 19, 2006

Mark Martin is the most pessimistic driver in the NASCAR Nextel Cup garage.

Through a career that has seen many successes, including four runner-up finishes but no championships, Martin always has been quick to bemoan his fate and accept the downside of the sport.

Last Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway, Martin was taken out by rookie J.J. Yeley, who suddenly darted from the middle of the track toward pit lane and slammed into Martin, sending the veteran hard into the wall.

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Within minutes, Martin, who was not injured and had no way of knowing how the points were shaping up at that point, moaned, “The championship is not really something that was meant for me, ever.”

That crash certainly could have been a deal breaker for Martin in the Chase for the championship. But, thanks to the problems of other contenders, all it turned out to be was a setback for the 47-year-old Martin.

Heading into Sunday’s race at Martinsville, the sixth of 10 races in the Chase, Jeff Burton holds a 45-point lead over Matt Kenseth, with Kevin Harvick, Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. all within 106 points of the leader.

When Burton heard what Martin said after the crash, he laughed. He knows Martin and his attitude well.

When Burton joined Roush Racing in 1996, his third full season in NASCAR’s top stock car series, Martin was long established as Roush’s premier driver and one of the best in the business.

Martin proved to be a great mentor for Burton, eight years younger, and their close relationship easily survived Burton leaving Roush to join Richard Childress Racing in the middle of the 2004 season.

Burton said he still seeks out his friend at the track or calls him on the telephone on a regular basis to talk about racing and life in general.

Now, Martin is nearing the end of his career and Burton is having a renaissance in his, with both among the 10 drivers vying for the 2006 Nextel Cup.

Before Martin wrecked, he and Burton swapped the points lead several times during the race. That prompted someone to ask Burton if Martin is just not meant to ever win a title.

“If Mark Martin is a cursed individual, then life’s not fair at all,” Burton said. “He’s genuinely a good person. He is a kind person you’d want your children to grow up and emulate — except for the pessimism.

Martin is in what likely will be his final full season in Cup. He is moving to MB2 Motorsports next season to run a partial schedule.

That means this is probably his last shot at winning the championship that has eluded him for so long.

“I’m not worried about it,” he said, shrugging. “I wasn’t before and I’m not now. I’m having fun. If I don’t win (the championship), it doesn’t matter. I’m having a blast.”

Burton, who also would love to win a championship after struggling just to be competitive the past few years, remains a Martin fan, no matter what the outcome. “If Mark Martin never wins a championship and never wins another race, you know what, it doesn’t matter,” Burton said. “Because he has had a positive impact on this sport. He will leave it better than when he got here, and he’s had a huge impact on a lot of young drivers. He’s taught a lot of young drivers the racing etiquette that is proper.

“You know, Mark is the kind of person that deserves a championship, and I can understand that people look at championships as a way of defining greatness. But, with Mark Martin, he is a great driver and he is a great person, with or without a championship.”