Martin philosophical about '07 Daytona 500 loss and back to try again

2/8/2008 - NASCAR

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin pulled out of the Turn 1 tunnel at Daytona International Speedway, having just lost the 2007 Daytona 500 to Kevin Harvick by two-hundredths of a second on a controversial green-white-checkered finish, and drove to his nearby house to shower.

No stops to kick the dog or throw things at the television.

No trips to the drugstore for tissue to wipe away tears of disappointment.

Same routine as usual.

"It was no different than any other race," the 49-year-old Martin said as he prepared for the 50th running of the Great American Race on Jan. 17. "Why should it be? If I'd won it doesn't make me a better person. It doesn't make me a better driver.

"Same thing if you drive straight into the wall it doesn't make you a bad person or a bad driver. … I'm very proud of what we did last year. I wish we would have won, but winning that race wouldn't change who I am and it really wouldn't change my world that much."

Martin still says all the right things about the final lap of that race. He's careful not to blame NASCAR letting the race play out when a major crash broke out behind him while he had the lead. He makes sure he doesn't sound like a whiner because he may never get another chance to win the Super Bowl of the sport he has poured his heart and soul into for more than 20 years.

"I don't like crybabies," Martin said. "I'm not going to wallow in that misery."

If losing that race hurt Martin, he'll never show it. But beneath his calm exterior, one has to wonder if he is bursting at the lungs to scream, "Why me?!" If he is ready to blast NASCAR for not freezing the field as some felt would have been the right call for safety reasons. If he's ready to bemoan the fact that his career has been marked by finishing second four times in the championship standings and having never won the 500.

"Don't think that's the first disappointment I've had in my career," said Martin, who was driving a car prepared by Ginn Racing in last year's 500. "Maybe that's how I deal with it, by not wallowing. I'm not going to wallow in it. By the time I got back to pit road, when the scoreboard read what it did, I knew it was done."

Only when Dale Earnhardt cut a tire while leading the final lap of the 1990 Daytona 500 has there been more sympathy or pity for one driver here. One certainly can't imagine Earnhardt, who didn't win his first 500 until 1998, handling the loss as gracefully as Martin.

"He had a tough one when he cut the tire," said Martin, who has finished seventh or better in the 500 nine times since 1993. "That was a tough one. Of course, that was bad luck. That's not exactly the same."

So you do disagree with NASCAR's call?

"It ain't the same as having a flat tire," Martin said.

So you are keeping something inside?

"It was a call," Martin said. "It was a call that wasn't going to change. I'm not going to bite the hand that feeds me. I'm usually quick to disagree. I've disagreed with NASCAR a lot. I'm not going to do that. When they make a decision on something, that's it.

"You can take it to the doggone appeals board and do what you want to do."

Martin will get reminded over and over about the finish over the next week, if not from reporters then from the large picture at the track showing how close he came.

For those that have forgotten, Martin started the overtime in the lead and had the checkered flag within sight when Harvick pulled beside him on the outside in Turn 3.

As they headed for the start-finish line, a melee ensued behind them. Cars were spinning everywhere. Clint Bowyer's car flipped over and crossed the line on the roof with fire bursting from underneath as it settled into the infield grass.

Had it not been the last lap of the race, NASCAR officials likely would have thrown caution immediately, freezing the field with Martin in the lead.

Most agree the governing body made the right call. Most also wish Martin could have held on.

"If there's somebody that deserves to have their name on that trophy, it is Mark," said three-time Daytona 500 champion Dale Jarrett. "You can't take it away from Kevin, either. He was doing exactly what he was supposed to do and he put himself in a position.

"It's just an unfortunate situation. Somebody was going to win and somebody was going to loose. The one that lost in this case was a competitor that we all admire and know that is very deserving of a Daytona 500 win."

Jeff Gordon, who has also won three Daytona 500s, agreed.

"I'm a huge Mark Martin fan, so I always want to see him win the Daytona 500," he said. "But moreso the championship. To me what makes a great champion is a diverse driver that is able to be good at so many different tracks, to be with a good team and be a talented driver, and Mark is that guy.

"Those guys don't always win the Daytona 500. Earnhardt only won one. Rusty [Wallace] never won one. There's some greats in our sport that didn't win here, but those guys pretty much always won the championship."

Nobody was cheering harder for Martin last year than Dale Earnhardt Jr., who was watching in his motorcoach after a wreck eliminated him from contention.

"I was happy as I could be for Richard Childress and Kevin, and in no way was I upset he won the race," the 2004 Daytona 500 champion said. "But if Kevin had been in the same spot and I was driving Kevin's car and Kevin was sitting in the bus, like I was, watching, he would have wanted Mark to have won, too.

"We were all pulling for Mark. That would have been a great win for him and the team. When you win that race you better consider yourself fortunate because there's a ton of drivers with a lot of talent that have come through this sport that haven't won it. Great race car drivers. Mark's one of them."

Martin never will win a championship. He's resigned to running a part-time schedule at Dale Earnhardt Inc., which merged with Ginn last summer, for the remainder of his career.

But he hasn't give up on winning the 500, and is as optimistic as ever driving the No. 8 that defined Earnhardt Jr. before he moved to Hendrick Motorsports this season.

"He's got a great opportunity in the equipment he's in," Earnhardt said. "I know. He's got a great car."

Martin may be able to mask the disappointment he felt last year, but he can't hide his desire to win the 500.

"It would be a pretty big deal after last year," he said. "You don't get many shots like that. I had one last year. It would sure be special."

But if he doesn't win, and even if he does, his routine won't change. He'll drive through the tunnel when all of his post-race responsibilities are done and head home to shower.

"I never spent a lot of time analyzing myself over the years," Martin said. "I spent my time trying to race better, making faster race cars. I don't self-analyze that much.

"I believe in my heart that I drove the race of my life [last year] and I don't know if I've got more than that in me or if I could ever do that. You know, I don't know, and I'm not worried about it."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.