A good day not good enough

11/16/2009 - NASCAR

AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Imagine you're 50 years old and have finished second in NASCAR's premier series four times. Imagine you're second in points in the second-to-last race with the driver ahead of you running away with yet another win. And there's nothing you can do about it.

Imagine the frustration.

Welcome to Mark Martin's world.

Barring a catastrophic situation for three-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson next weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway -- he can finish 25th and clinch no matter what Martin or anybody else does -- the season's sentimental favorite will be a bridesmaid again.

Martin, as he has done all season, drove his heart out Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway. All he had to show for it was a fourth-place finish that left him 108 points out in second place.

He won't wave the white flag. He knows it's not truly over until it's over.

But it's over.

Imagine how that must feel.

Actually, you can't. Martin decided some time ago that his career will be complete without a championship. He knows no matter what happens in South Florida a week from today won't make him a better driver.

But I had to ask anyway. What did it feel like hopelessly chasing Johnson?

He moved within inches of my face, smiled and said, "I'm not worried about it. Don't you get it? We've talked about this a million times. I'm not worried about it. We had a great race today. I'm proud of what we did."

He should be. What Martin and the No. 5 team at Hendrick Motorsports have accomplished all season would be championship material in most scenarios that didn't involve the driver he refers to as Superman.

"It doesn't bother me," Martin said over and over about falling short again.

Having been through this four other times against one Hall of Fame driver and two future Hall of Famers has brought him to this place. Martin finished second to seven-time champion Dale Earnhardt in 1990 and 1994. He was second to four-time champion Jeff Gordon in 1998 and to two-time champion Tony Stewart in 2002.

"Definitely, I have been beaten by the best," Martin said as he moved to a more comfortable position on the pit-road wall. "It wouldn't embarrass me if that was Jimmie Johnson as well."

Nor should Martin be embarrassed.

He stopped just short of saying Johnson is the best of the lot.

"Things are quite different now," Martin said. "But no one from my experience, from 1981 'til now, no one has been able to sustain the kind of performance they have. Many have achieved that kind of performance, but they never were able to sustain it because it's very, very difficult to do.

"It might come apart, come unraveled at any time. But I don't see that. I see that continuing for a long time. I don't think it's going to unravel."

If it doesn't, Martin will finish his career as the best driver never to win a title.

That doesn't make it easy to swallow. That doesn't mean when Martin gets home he doesn't wish he could be in Johnson's shoes.

That's OK. He wouldn't be a competitor if he didn't feel that way.

But as team owner Rick Hendrick said, Martin has "his stuff together."

"Mark is happy in his skin," Hendrick said. "He's comfortable with his life. He's comfortable with his family, and what drives him is not the desire to win a championship.

"I'm 10 years older than Mark. There's some times when you've been through enough things in life you want to do the best you can, but you're happy where you are. And Mark is really happy."

Again, that doesn't mean Martin doesn't want to win the championship. He might attempt a Carl Edwards backflip if he somehow found himself -- and not Johnson -- holding the crystal trophy that goes to the champion.

Not even Johnson buys Martin's it-doesn't-bother-me attitude.

"That man wants it," he said. "We've all seen it."

Pat Tryson, Martin's former crew chief at Roush Fenway Racing, put it in perspective.

"What Mark means is if his career ends tomorrow and he doesn't win the championship it's not going to kill him," he said. "It's not going to be the end of his world, and he's going to be happy with everything he's accomplished.

"But I'm sure it's frustrating running in the top five and you still can't make up any ground [on Johnson]. That's what we're all frustrated with now."

Johnson knows what that feels like to a degree. He ran as hard as he could in 2005, but finished fourth to Stewart after crashing in the season finale.

"I guess Mark would be going through those [feelings] as well," Johnson said. "I would assume more, because of his experience."

It's because of that experience that Martin is able to handle those feelings so well. But he hasn't given up. His parting words Sunday were, "I'm not mathematically eliminated yet."

And for those who have eternal optimism, Martin has gained more than 108 points on Johnson nine times during his career, including the 2005 finale at Homestead.

"You've got to bring your A game to beat Mark Martin," Johnson said. "It's not easy to outrun him. He makes you earn every inch of it."

Martin has brought his A game all season. He has made Johnson earn the history that he will make with a fourth straight championship, just as he made Earnhardt, Gordon and Stewart earn titles when he was the closest chaser.

That makes Martin happy. He takes great pleasure in saying Johnson is underrated.

"Underrated and underappreciated," Martin said.

Reminded he is underappreciated by some as well, Martin smiled and said, "My guys like me. I wouldn't say I'm underappreciated."

Welcome to Martin's world.

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