Best Driver To Never Win A Title

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Mark Martin, NASCAR's biggest enigma, sits on top of the Winston Cup standings as the series heads to California Speedway. He's comfortable with the spot, having spent most of the last dozen years near the pinnacle of stock car racing.

But he is not always comfortable with the question that plagues his career -- Will he ever win a Winston Cup championship?

Martin is a mystery, but there's no doubt that he's one of the greatest drivers ever to strap on a racing helmet. He is, without a doubt, the best NASCAR driver to never win a title.

Martin is Winston Cup's perennial bridesmaid, despite being named one of the top 50 drivers in NASCAR history during the celebration of the sanctioning body's first 50 years in 1998. He's living proof that nice guys don't have to finish last, but he's also a strong testimony that it can be difficult for one of them to finish first.

For the past 11 seasons, Martin has been NASCAR's best driver. He's finished in the top six in points during that entire span, an accomplishment that makes the Arkansas native the most consistent driver of the 1990s. He's finished second in the points three times, third four times, fourth once, fifth once and sixth twice.

And in that same stretch, Martin dominated the Busch Grand National Series while racing part-time. He's the winningest driver in the history of the circuit with 44 wins.

Martin has also been great off the track, representing NASCAR with pride and
doing countless acts of charity.

Martin is just hard to figure out.

He's religious, yet he keeps his faith to himself. With some athletes, their relationship with God seems mostly good marketing, but Martin is both quiet and strong in his faith.

Martin is often quiet about everything, almost shy. Yet he never fails to speak out on controversial issues and sometimes even seems a bit babyish as he whines. He's not loud and obnoxious, but many people can't stand him.

He's a stand-up guy; yet he looks like a weasel. He's not outgoing and gregarious, yet he's been a good friend to the troubled Ernie Irvan and a mentor to a string of young drivers that includes Jeff Burton and Matt Kenseth.

Martin is also well known for his legendary attention to fitness, pumping iron long before it was fashionable among drivers. He did spend this past winter in bed after back surgery, almost growing crazy because he couldn't work out.

Martin, despite not being the best-looking guy in the garage or even having a gift of gab, has been one of NASCAR's hottest drivers in terms of television commercials. Hardee's, Valvoline, Winn-Dixie -- his face is always showing up someplace.

Despite knowing what a great driver he is, Martin is partly motivated by his fear of never winning again. In 1996, he just about went nuts despite finishing fifth in the points as he went winless. Contrary to the evidence of his high finishes in the standings, he says he doesn't race for points but to win every race.

"I've always been successful in my racing endeavors, but never as success as what I would like," Martin says. " I don't think I'm ever complete satisfied."

And despite this determination not to fail and to win each event, Martin never wants to win at all costs. He plays it straight on the track. While most drivers get a little frisky and aggressive when they smell a possible victory, Martin rarely endangers other drivers.

It is this "always in the hunt, yet never the hunter" attitude which many in NASCAR think prevents Martin from winning a title. When it comes to push and shove, he won't. He'll just drive steadily to another top-five finish in a race, another near miss in the points.

Martin believes this may be the year that he puts an end to the talk about winning a championship. He started thinking that long before he took over the points lead last week at Talladega. He was particularly excited about his showing in the season-opening performance at the Daytona 500.

"Every year this Valvoline team gets strong," Martin says. "It used to be that we didn't win races until the second half of the season. In 1998, we won the third race of the year and last year we won the second race. This year we had an advantage since we came out of Daytona with a top-five finish. "For the past three years we've had to dig ourselves out of a hole after Daytona. That has made a huge difference in the points."

Martin knows that the season is long. The driver of the No. 6 Ford also knows that he might not ever win a Winston Cup championship, but it doesn't seem to bother him as much as it used to. Since his father died in a plane crash, Martin has focused on other goals.

"Some folks think it's pretty bad that I haven't won a championship yet and I think it's pretty good that I've been a contender so many times," Martin says. "It hasn't bothered me that much that I haven't won a Winston Cup title.

"I think that my competitors respect me. I've tried to be a good competitor and do the right things in my life. I've tried to set the right kind of examples and be a man that my father could be proud of."

Perhaps winning the Winston Cup title doesn't have to the crowning achievement in a driver's life. Maybe it's more important to be comfortable with the kind of man that you are. Maybe Mark Martin is already a champion.

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