Saturday, October 24, 2009

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: For many, a Martin win at Martinsville would be grrrrrrrreat!

MARTINSVILLE -- He has a giant tiger on the hood of his car, which sounds pretty daunting until you realize it's a cartoon tiger.

A smiling tiger wearing a neckerchief.

A tiger who tells you how "grrrrrrrrrrrreat" a bowl of cereal is.

An intimidator, this tiger is not.

But for Mark Martin, it seems fitting. When others growl, he purrs.

When others might take a win-at-all-costs approach, Martin considers the big picture, stays under control and typically keeps his bumper clean.

Boring? Sometimes. But while Martin's gentlemanly disposition has no doubt cost him a few victories throughout his career, it's also earned him gobs of respect in the garage and the grandstands.

It's simply hard to hate Mark Martin, even if you're racing him for a championship.

"I don't think there's anybody in garage area that wouldn't like to see Mark win it," Jeff Gordon said Friday, repeating a common mantra among the Sprint Cup regulars. "He's the sentimental favorite."

Jimmie Johnson is the story this weekend, because Jimmie Johnson -- who's chasing an unprecedented fourth straight series title -- is always the story at Martinsville Speedway.

But if NASCAR gets lucky, Martin will find a way to beat him Sunday, injecting some life into a title chase that seems to have ended five races too soon.

Martin ranks second in the standings, 90 points behind Johnson. No. 2 is an all-too-familiar position for him. He's finished runner-up in the Cup standings four times.

His battle with Dale Earnhardt in 1990 was among the closest in the history of the series, and Martin would have won it if not for a 46-point penalty early in the season. On eight other occasions, he's placed in the top five.

The litany of near misses only increases Martin's mass appeal, and he's certainly aware of the legions who are pulling for him to succeed.

"That's an incredible honor, and it's also a little bit of pressure," Martin said. "It means so much to me that they feel that way that I desperately don't want to disappoint them."

The 50-year-old Martin looks like your grandfather, provided your grandfather is Jack LaLanne. His strict diet and supreme dedication to physical fitness increase the chances that this isn't exactly now-or-never for him.

Even though he started Cup racing the same year Walter Cronkite signed off from the CBS Evening News, Martin could contend for the title again next year or in 2011, the final year of his contract with Hendrick Motorsports.

Still, that's no guarantee. It's hard to imagine him having a better shot than this.

Given that, any chance he brandishes the claws for a change?

"It might make for good writing, but if I go out here and get ugly Sunday, then it might cost me that championship," Martin said.

"I know it sounds all cool and dramatic, but what I need to do is race him for it. And I'm racing with everything I've got."

Martin, who finished seventh here in the spring, had the fastest time in Friday's first practice session. That's a start. The challenge now is a strong finish at a track Johnson has owned for years.

"All I can do is put it out there," Martin said. "That's all I can do. I will put it out there and race with every bit of fire. Just because I don't cause a lot of stink on the racetrack doesn't mean I don't race with a lot of fire. You ask somebody that's raced me this year."

We would. But first we'd have to pry the pompoms from their hands.

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