- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 22, 2009

HOMESTEAD, Fla. | Mark Martin has lost to Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart - some of NASCAR’s greatest drivers - in his frustrating bid for an elusive championship.

Standing in his way now? Jimmie Johnson, who takes a 108-point lead over Martin into Sunday’s season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Barring a total collapse, Johnson will be the one to send Martin to a fifth runner-up finish in the standings. In doing so, Johnson will become the first driver in NASCAR history to win four consecutive championships.

When Martin gets beat, it’s by the very best.

“I don’t know how this guy here hasn’t won a championship,” wondered Rick Hendrick, owner of both Johnson and Martin’s teams. “He has raced and finished second to some of the all-time greats when they were in their prime, from Jeff Gordon to Dale Earnhardt. Has anyone [else] ever raced against that many champions in their prime and finished second?

“He would have to be considered one of the all-time greats.”

And so begins the debate over where the winner and the loser of this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup championship will stack up in NASCAR history.

In one corner is Johnson, who has dominated the Cup Series the past four years. He has won 29 races over the past four seasons, including four since the 10-race Chase began in September.

In the other is Martin, the 50-year-old role model to most NASCAR drivers who came back to full-time racing this season when Hendrick offered him one of the best rides in the business.

With five wins in this rejuvenating season, Martin has proved to still be at the top of the game. But as the praise poured in for the sentimental favorite, he downplayed his role in the sport’s history.

“My record does not stand up against the greats in this business,” he said of 40 victories in 757 starts. “I just want to be a winner. Just a winner, you know? I worked really hard and I try pretty hard to be that.”

Understated, as always, and open for debate. He wasn’t even finished underselling his accomplishments when Hendrick urged Johnson to speak up and make everyone understand just what Martin means to NASACAR.

“He’s too humble of a man, and doesn’t understand what he’s done in this sport, for this sport, how many young guys have respected what he’s done,” Johnson said. “Coming up through ASA, everybody knew who Mark Martin was. I aspired at that time to have people speak of me as they did you. When I came to race in the Busch Series at the time, you were wearing us all out week in and week out. That was our chance to race against Mark Martin and to learn something from him.

“… You are one of the greatest. We all think the world of you and respect the hell out of you.”

For Johnson, the respect oddly doesn’t come as easily.

Although he certainly has been dominant the past four years, fans have been slow to embrace the well-spoken, corporate-focused driver from El Cajon, Calif.

Add in that he drives for arguably the best team in NASCAR and has perhaps the best crew chief in the business in Chad Knaus, and it has been difficult for Johnson to earn credit.

“Whether he wins this championship or loses it, we’re going to look back 20 or 30 years from now and say, ‘They were incredible,’ ” said former Hendrick teammate Brian Vickers. “I don’t know what it is about our sport, but you go watch Tiger Woods play golf or you watch the Yankees win another World Series, and it is just celebrated throughout the industry and an opportunity to see the best at the best and to see the best win multiple times in a row.

“For some reason, when that happens in our industry, everyone asks, ‘What’s wrong?’ I think this is great for our sport. Jimmie is getting ready to win four in a row - there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He’ll do it Sunday simply by finishing 25th or better regardless of what Martin does. Because Johnson won the pole, if he leads the first lap, he’ll have to finish only 27th or better.

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