Martin finishes second to Johnson

HOMESTEAD, Fla. -- Mark Martin thought for a second. Laughed. Then laughed again.

Finishing second in the yearlong battle for the NASCAR championship, there was a time that easily could have crushed his emotions, left him angry and frustrated.

Not this time. At 50, his perspective has changed.

Martin accepted NASCAR's silver medal for the fifth time Sunday night, unable in the season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway to derail Jimmie Johnson's march toward stock-car immortality. Johnson became the first driver to win four straight NASCAR titles -- while Martin joined Richard Petty and Bobby Allison as the only drivers to finish No. 2 in the points standings five times.

"There's no frustration, man," said Martin, a half-hour after championship confetti again filled the air in someone else's honor. "I know you'd love it. I know you'd love it. I know all y'all would love it. But there's no frustration. There's none. I'm very proud of what we accomplished."

Martin finished this season 141 points behind Johnson, a gap 33 points larger than it was when the race began. Jeff Gordon was third, another 38 points back, but giving Hendrick Motorsports a historic 1-2-3 finish in the standings. And soon after the checkered flag fell, Martin was among the first people to offer a congratulatory handshake to Johnson and the No. 48 car's crew chief, Chad Knaus.

"It was such an incredible achievement to have a chance," said Martin, also NASCAR's runner-up in 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002.

Petty was NASCAR's runner-up six times; of course, he also won the title seven times.

Allison's lone NASCAR title came in 1983 to go along with his five runner-up showings, and Martin sharing another link with him comes tinged with some irony. Allison was the one who made the recommendation to Jack Roush to give Martin a ride more than 20 years ago.

"I have to say how much I appreciate Mark Martin and what he's done for the team and the friendship and the respect and the competition he's brought," Johnson said. "He's made me step my game up, be a better race car driver."

There was sadness for Martin, and it had nothing to do with missing a chance to spray champagne.

He repeatedly paid homage to team owner Rick Hendrick -- who wasn't there for Sunday's celebration. Hendrick was back in North Carolina with a critically ill 29-year-old niece, who was undergoing emergency liver transplant surgery during the race, team officials said.

"We're all praying for our Hendrick tragedy that we're dealing with," Martin said.

The way this season began, not many probably expected Martin to be a contender.

He was 16th in the Daytona 500, followed that by back-to-back 40th-place showings, only to soon rally with seven top-10s in a span of eight races. And four straight top-five finishes from Aug. 22 through Sept. 20 not only vaulted him into the Chase for the Sprint Cup -- but left him atop the pack.

Johnson was the only one who kept him from staying there.

"I probably picked the hardest one ever to try to win, but my race team was so awesome," Martin said. "I just want to thank the fans and the competitors for their support. Means more to me than that trophy would, I swear."

On the day Martin got his first NASCAR win, Oct. 22, 1989, he hopped out of his car and said, "this is a preview of things to come."

In a way, it was.

In all, 39 more wins, five of them this season, followed over the past 21 years. But the big one -- the yearlong title -- hasn't happened yet, although there's some who still wonder what might have been in 1990, the year he might have been a half-inch away from winning it all.

That was the year Martin was docked 46 points for an illegal carburetor spacer in a race at Richmond. NASCAR found the spacer was 2½ inches tall, a half-inch more than allowed, and fined him $40,000 for what was then a record. When announcing the spacer violation and fine, though, NASCAR's competition director acknowledged, "we don't know if it's an advantage or not."

Martin lost the championship that season by 26 points to Dale Earnhardt.

"We accomplished more than anybody in the garage than the 48," Martin said. "That ought to make you proud."