Cory Mac in search of that elusive title
SEATTLE -- The Mark Martin of drag racing.
Cory McClenathan doesn't mind the moniker. A racer could be called a lot worse things.
And McClenathan knows it fits. Martin is viewed by many as the best driver in NASCAR history never to win a championship. McClenathan, now in his 19th season in Top Fuel, often is referred to as the best driver in NHRA history without a championship trophy.
"I've never talked to Mark, but maybe I should," McClenathan said. "Maybe we could give each other some pointers on how to change it. Mark's actually one guy I've admired in a big way. He's gotten close [to a championship] so many times and he's still a great driver."
So is McClenathan, who ranks third in the Top Fuel standings entering the Northwest Nationals this weekend. The action in Seattle begins the NHRA's Western Swing that includes Sonoma and Denver.
McClenathan talked about his chances of earning that elusive Top Fuel crown during an NHRA luncheon Thursday at the Space Needle on a rare 90-degree day in Seattle.
"I do feel a lot like Mark," said McClenathan, who is 47, four years younger than Martin. "The championship is the one thing we haven't been able to put on my résumé. We have a lot in common."
More than most people realize. Martin has the best car of his career in the No. 5 Chevrolet. McClenathan has the best machine of his career with the Fram dragster.
Martin drives for the biggest and best organization in NASCAR at Hendrick Motorsports. McClenathan has the same good fortune at Don Schumacher Racing.
To win the Sprint Cup title, Martin has to beat his teammate Jimmie Johnson, who has won the past four championships. McClenathan also has to beat his teammate, Tony Schumacher, who has won the past six Top Fuel titles.
"Tony is definitely the guy everybody wants to knock off the top of the block," McClenathan said. "But there are a lot of good dragsters out there that can do it, including our teammate, Antron Brown."
Brown, 34, won the Western Swing last year, but he's winless in five final-round appearances this season. He joined DSR last October and has built a close relationship with McClenathan.
"Me and Cory are pretty tight, and we have a lot of fun together," Brown said Thursday. "Cory is one of the best teammates I've ever had. He's very genuine, he's a hard worker and he's very determined. If you ever need somebody to have your back, he's there for you."
Hendrick Motorsports drivers feel the same way about Martin, the wily veteran who can help you when you need it, on and off the track.
McClenathan has found some new ways to help himself in recent months. First, he decided to get in better shape.
"The guys said they were putting the car and me on a diet after last season," McClenathan said. "It was their nice way to tell me I needed to lose 10 pounds."
McClenathan doubled that request and lost 20 pounds.
Cory is one of the best teammates I've ever had. He's very genuine, he's a hard worker and he's very determined. If you ever need somebody to have your back, he's there for you.” -- Antron Brown
"I feel a lot better," McClenathan said. "Mike Green [Schumacher's crew chief, who formerly worked with McClenathan] said I'm driving better than he's seen in a lot of years, and he's known me for a long time."
The physical side of things wasn't the only change in McClenathan's routine. He decided he needed to mentally improve, as well. He works with a legacy coach named Scott Garwood.
"He's done wonders for me," McClenathan said. "I've tried to open up my mind to try new stuff. I was looking for a little bit more of a mental edge. It was a giant step for me because I'm so set in my ways after doing this for 19 years."
McClenathan said he goes to the starting line now with a different attitude and less tension than in past years.
"I'm more focused,'' he said. "Scott has helped me take the baggage of everyday life and all the stresses that come with it and put those aside when I'm racing."
McClenathan already has two wins this year, the first time he's posted more than one victory in a season since 2000. He hasn't won at Seattle since 1997 when he swept the Western Swing.
This is McClenathan's 19th start at Pacific Raceways, the most appearances of any Top Fuel driver in this event.
The last time McClenathan finished as the runner-up to the championship was 1998, but most NHRA followers remember the first time it happened in 1992. The Kansas native skipped the Montreal event that year because he didn't have the money to make the trip.
"I was racing with Mom and Dad," McClenathan said. "Financially, we just couldn't make it happen. We ended up losing the championship by one round [to Joe Amato]. All I had to do was go there and qualify."
It was a "what if" moment, something many drivers have after they come close to a championship.
McClenathan has more of those than he cares to remember. He prefers to look forward. Can he get that close again? And can he win it?
Not only will he need to beat Schumacher, he will have to beat Larry Dixon, who leads the standings and has seven victories this season.
But the Countdown playoff format is the equalizing factor McClenathan never had in his runner-up years. Ten drivers battle for the title in the final six races.
"The Countdown is a blessing," McClenathan said. "Larry has been so good, and it gives us a chance to catch him."
If it comes down to Dixon and McClenathan, the battle is on. But what if it comes down to McClenathan and Schumacher, his teammate and the son of his team owner?
"I guarantee you Don will stand in the middle and be proud no matter who wins," McClenathan said. "Don promises all the sponsors, and all the members of the teams that work so hard, that we race fair and square whether it's the first race or the last race of the season.
"We try to make sure the cars stay identically the same. You could actually take my car and Tony's car and peel the panels off them and you couldn't tell the difference," McClenathan said.
"We exchange info back and forth until it comes down to we have to race each other and then it's closed books."
It's every man for himself. Get all you can get.
And there is one big difference between Martin and McClenathan. Martin says he isn't concerned about winning a championship now. He's just happy to run well and have a chance to win.
That's not good enough for McClenathan. He wants that championship, and believes he can get it with crew chiefs Phil Shuler and Todd Okuhara.
"This is the best chance I've ever had with Phil and Todd," McClenathan said. "I just want to make the most of it."
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks." He can be reached at email@example.com.