Martin out front, has to keep racing to stay there

FONTANA, Calif. -- Mark Martin is in a position he never expected to have: Nextel Cup points leader after the first two races with his new team.

For the record, the last time Martin led the standings was Sept. 22, 2002. Tony Stewart won the championship that season by 38 points, the fourth time in Martin's career that he missed the title by one spot.

It is the one missing brushstroke in a masterpiece painting of a brilliant career.

Martin, 48, is the best driver in NASCAR history without a championship ring. Frankly, he might be the best athlete of his era without one.

Martin is Dan Marino, Karl Malone and Tony Gwynn all rolled into one. Imagine what any of those men would give for one more shot.

But Martin expects us to believe he'll take a pass. He says he's only running a partial schedule this year. He says he will not race at Bristol, Tenn., on March 25.

After his fifth-place finish at California Speedway on Sunday, Martin looked and sounded like the happiest man in racing.

"I'm loving this," Martin said. "I am rolling, man."

But his demeanor changed when asked again whether he will race full time. He answered with one word:


Don't believe it. That's not to say Martin is deliberately lying. He isn't. He believes what he's saying.

But Martin never anticipated this scenario. If he leads the Cup standings heading into Bristol, his plans will change. They have to.

It's one thing to walk away when you're on top, but this is different. You don't quit when the biggest prize of your career is within reach.

Martin said he will attend the test session Wednesday and Thursday at Bristol for the Car of Tomorrow. Bristol is the first race for the COT.

Martin's main job at the test is to tutor Regan Smith, the rookie who is scheduled to replace Martin and drive the No. 01 Army Chevrolet for the Bristol race.

Might want to rethink that one. Martin should get as much seat time in the COT as he can. It's his ride until further notice.

Martin is hesitant to say he'll keep driving because he knows things can change quickly. The Cup teams have two more races -- Las Vegas and Atlanta -- before Bristol.

He could have two bad finishes at those events and drop 10 spots in the standings. But Martin senses something special is going on at Ginn Racing.

Martin left Roush Racing because he wanted to help build a new team, the same way he helped build Jack Roush's team two decades ago.

Martin saw immediately that Bobby Ginn meant business when he bought MB2 Motorsports this past fall. Ginn was willing to spend whatever it took to make the operation successful, and he wisely kept Jay Frye in charge of the racing decisions.

Bringing Martin to the team was the big coup for Ginn and Frye. Now it's bigger than they imagined.

Martin was three feet short of winning the Daytona 500. Joe Nemechek, driving a new third car for Ginn Racing, is a surprising seventh in the standings after two finishes in the top 15.

This is an organization on the way up. Martin can feel it. So why would he climb out of the race car when everything is going his way?

He won't. Even if he wanted to, the pressure from fans, media and his team would keep him behind the wheel. Frye said last week that Martin can stay in the car as long as he wants.

Martin respects Frye, but he respects his legion of fans even more. He won't let them down by walking away from one last chance at a championship.

At least not yet. If he gets to midseason and he's 19th in the standings, it's back to the original plan of racing part time.

But not now. Not while he's on a hot streak. He has to go for it. He owes it to his fans; he owes it to his team; but mainly, he owes it to himself.

Marino would love one more chance to toss a winning touchdown pass in a Super Bowl. Malone's dream would come true if he could post up and take that winning shot in the NBA Finals. And Gwynn would give away some of his batting titles if he could swing away in Game 7 of a World Series.

What do you think they would tell Martin if he asked them what to do?

After almost winning the Daytona 500, Martin said: "I never asked to win the Daytona 500. I only asked for a chance to win it."

For the moment, Martin has one more chance to win the title that has eluded him. Ride it out, Mark, until the chance is gone.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.