Martin's missed opportunity at Daytona 'a tough pill to swallow'

7/6/2007 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin, the real winner of the 2007 Daytona 500 in the eyes of some NASCAR fans, returns to his home track this weekend.

He hopes in Saturday night's Pepsi 400 is slightly different.

Martin was a controversial runner-up here in February, a microcosm of the theme that has defined his career. Kevin Harvick edged Martin by a nose five months ago in one of the wildest Daytona 500 finishes in history.

"I think I had a 15th-place car," Martin said. "But I had a team with a huge heart. I wanted to win that race in the worst way. I was willing to take more risks than I had in my career. We had the lead for the last 26 laps."

While cars were spinning, crashing and flipping down the frontstretch behind them, Harvick and Martin floored it side-by-side to the checkered flag.

You can't script this stuff, folks. Clint Bowyer's car slid through the infield grass on its roof and caught fire before flipping back on its wheels.

And the race stayed green until the two front-runners crossed the start/finish line. Harvick won by about 3 feet, but the controversy had just begun.

NASCAR elected not to throw the caution after the multicar wreck began. The field is frozen when the caution starts. Martin's fans believe his No. 01 Chevy was in front when the caution should have come out.

Maybe, maybe not. But NASCAR elected to let the leaders decide the outcome in the premiere event of the sport.

It was the right call, but left some fans howling about an outcome that relegated Martin to the spot that has characterized his career -- one notch short of the big prize.

"The outpouring from the fans and all the attention was amazing," Martin said. "We came so close. It was a tough pill to swallow, but the guys at Ginn Racing gave me a solid shot to win the biggest race of the year. You just can't ask for more than that."

Martin has taken his shot at several big moments in his 23-year career, but the ultimate prize has eluded him. He is generally regarded as the best NASCAR driver never to win a Cup title.

That moniker won't change now since Martin happily has moved into part-time status as a driver.

He is a four-time runner-up to the Cup crown, falling only 26 points short of Dale Earnhardt in 1990. But Martin never was a runner-up in the Daytona 500 until the season-opener this year.

Martin never has won a Cup points race at Daytona Beach, the city where the Arkansas native makes his home. He can't change his fate on winning a title, but he can change his luck at Daytona.

"Daytona has been a tough track for me over the years," Martin said. "I've had a lot of heartache there, but I don't really count last February as one of those."

Martin, 48, raced 19 seasons for Jack Roush's team before moving to Ginn Racing this year. He decided to run a partial schedule for the first time in his career, but many people hoped he would change his mind after almost winning the Daytona 500.

Daytona has been a tough track for me over the years. I've had a lot of heartache there, but I don't really count last February as one of those.

Mark Martin

That sentiment continued to build when he finished in the top 10 in the first five races of the season. His Ginn Racing equipment was more competitive than anyone expected, so maybe he could finally win a Cup crown if he raced the entire season.

His fans begged. They pleaded. They all but got on their hands and knees asking him to give it one more shot.

Martin didn't budge. He made a commitment to his family and he stuck to it, but he wasn't acting against his will. Martin honestly didn't want to do it. The pressure is off and he loves it.

Martin is a happy man. For the first time in his career, he's calling the shots. Martin said Thursday that he will give the Daytona 500 another shot next year.

He races when he wants; he stays home when he wants.

Martin tutors the young drivers in Ginn's stable -- Regan Smith, who splits time in the 01 car with Martin, and Ricky Carmichael, the motocross sensation who is learning the ropes in a stock car.

Martin also has more time to guide the burgeoning racing career of his son -- 15-year-old Matt Martin.

Life is good for Matt's old man. But think how good it would be if he followed up his Daytona 500 showing with a win under the lights Saturday on the 2.5-mile oval.

Not quite the fairy-tale ending many NASCAR followers hope to see for the perennial runner-up, but not bad.

"Maybe I can get it done for them this weekend," Martin said. "It's hard to replicate that magic, but we're going to try. This time I'd settle for a little less hype and some hardware in the form of a trophy."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak5.com.