Martin so close, yet so far … again

FORT WORTH, Texas -- You could tell it was beginning to sink in -- again -- with Mark Martin on Friday. This likely will make five times.

"We gave it a good effort," he said of this, the season he seemed most likely to break the bittersweet status his peers have given him: the best driver never to win the championship. "But we haven't quite matched his [teammate Jimmie Johnson's] performance, although we gave him a pretty good run.

"And that's all -- that's all we can do …"

Toughened by too much scar tissue for too many years, Martin's heart just can't be broken anymore: four previous second-place finishes for the Cup, and four more times in the hunt late in seasons.

"Definitely no heartbreak whatsoever," he said of falling almost hopelessly behind Johnson, by 184 points, after wrecking out at the end Sunday at Talladega.

There was an annoyance, though, to the way he fell back -- his car flipping and briefly on fire at Talladega, on a weekend when he'd guaranteed all who'd listen that for once he wouldn't wreck there.

"Talladega was a rub" on his emotions, he said. "I'd rather go out fightin' than flippin'."

The math says the Chase isn't over, that another championship hasn't been narrowly lost -- yet -- and Martin made a perfunctory effort at keeping a little faith.

"Still could happen," he said. "The race is still on for the top six positions. And we're gonna race. I can't wait."

He'd been saying all season he was just out to race, wide-open and care-free. "I wasn't BS-ing you guys," he said. "I didn't take this job [with Hendrick Motorsports] to try to get the championship trophy. I took this job -- you know why."

It was to "drive a fast race car and hopefully win a race," he'd been saying all along.

"And doggone, it's worked out pretty good," he said Friday, understating his season: five wins, more than in his previous nine years combined.

A win in Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway -- or, even more likely, next week at Phoenix, where he won in the spring, would give him six this season -- as many as in his past 10 seasons combined.

But a championship? He'd begun to resign himself even last week, when he still had a decent chance, heading into the Talladega race.

He began to philosophize then, and continued Friday, about all the greatness it has taken to keep him second for the title so many times: Dale Earnhardt twice, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart …

"I've been beat by Earnhardt, I've been beat by Gordon, I've been beat by Stewart, and I wouldn't be embarrassed to be beaten by Jimmie Johnson. I'm not ashamed of any of it. That doesn't make me have a bad career. Matter of fact, a lot of people would think that was a pretty good one."

He held onto that Friday, facing up more and more to the reality he's had to face so many times, for so long.

"I think it's pretty awesome to be able to hold my own against guys like that," he said. "I gave 'em something to shoot at, someone to race from time to time.

"I gave their fans something to be concerned about, and gave mine something to cheer about."

I've been beat by Earnhardt, I've been beat by Gordon, I've been beat by Stewart, and I wouldn't be embarrassed to be beaten by Jimmie Johnson. I'm not ashamed of any of it. That doesn't make me have a bad career.

-- Mark Martin

And yet he reminded why he may also go down in NASCAR lore as the most beloved driver never to win the championship.

"I'm just not -- my record doesn't stand up against theirs," he said of those who've left him second. "It's just that plain and simple."

Actually, this makes 20 years of close but no title for Martin. He first finished second, to Earnhardt, in 1990, and that's the one remembered.

"Actually the 1989 season was overlooked," he said. "We were in second in points going into the last race, in our second year with Roush Racing, and the engine blew up and caught on fire, and we finished third [in points].

"And since then, I have learned a lot and I have seen a lot and I have come to realize that I'm no Dale Earnhardt. My record don't stand up to his. Just doesn't. And when you stand me up against Jeff Gordon, it just doesn't stand up to it, man. I understand that. … Tony Stewart's either."

He does not pine over greatness in the record books so narrowly missed, so many times.

"I've said this before, and I'll say it again," he said last week. "I am not bitter about what I have not accomplished. But I am proud of what I have accomplished."

On one hand, you think Mark Martin just might handle disappointment (in his youth you could call it heartbreak) with more dignity and grace than any other chronic runner-up in all of sports.

On the other, you realize he's had more practice at it than anyone else, at least in NASCAR.

But to handle it again, and again and again -- and again with a smile on his weathered face -- that's class, for the long term.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.