Martin unable to hang on for Daytona victory

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin told former teammate Jeff Burton during the offseason this might be his best chance to win the Daytona 500.

"My heart wasn't broken. I've done this stuff a long time and I've had a lot worse happen than what happened the last 200 yards of this race -- a lot worse."
-- Mark Martin

He told him the restrictor plate program for the Chevrolet he would drive at Ginn Racing was better than any of the Fords he drove the past 19 years for former owner Jack Roush.

He told him this might be the year.

He was right.

Until a late caution forced an 11-minute stoppage and a green-white-checkered finish, Martin appeared headed for his first win at Daytona International Speedway at an age (48) when most drivers simply are thankful to be in the field.

Instead, he finished second by a car hood to Kevin Harvick in a final 200 yards that was as wild as any in the history of this race.

"He knew what he was doing," Burton said. "He's not a dumb-a--."

Martin laughed.

"Thank you," he said. "I appreciate that."

Martin also is not a whiner.

He could have pitched a fit about how NASCAR should have thrown the caution and frozen the field on the final lap with him slightly ahead when Kyle Busch first got into Matt Kenseth coming off Turn 4.

He could have belly-ached about how he would have been the easy winner had former Roush Fenway Racing teammate Kenseth not pushed Harvick from a seemingly insurmountable deficit of five or six car lengths to the front on the final half lap.

He didn't.

He accepted this near miss as graciously as he accepted four runner-up finishes in the points race for Roush, none more painful than the 26-point deficit to Dale Earnhardt in 1990.

He smiled throughout his postrace comments, bringing a moment of levity to the media center with the driver who replaced him in the No. 6 at Roush.

"I was running 10th [when they stopped the race] for the green-white-checkered," rookie David Ragan said. "I would have paid money to have it over right there."

Martin sighed and said, "You and me both."

But Martin knew it wasn't over then. And he knew it wasn't over when cars went spinning behind him coming off the final turn.

He was so focused on beating Harvick to the checkered flag that he didn't notice Busch, the driver he hoped would push him to victory, was among those in the carnage of smoke, fire and crumpled sheet metal.

Martin kept his pedal pushed to the floor and he would have been disappointed had Harvick not done the same.

"I've been racing for over 30 years and I know one thing for sure, I'm real dumb and I do stupid stuff," Martin said. "So I sure as heck wasn't going to quit racing.

"I never thought twice about the prospect of the race going yellow."

NASCAR never thought twice about throwing the yellow until Clint Bowyer went into a fiery spin. By then, Harvick and Martin were crossing the finish line less than five feet apart.

"There was a dynamic that was taking place and Mark was the loser again," said Roush, who couldn't come up with a part-time schedule to keep Martin with him this season.

"I'll congratulate him and commiserate with him because he didn't have the result he wanted, but I didn't have a great night either."

Harvick knew as soon as he got a run on Martin that he would be the bad guy in this. He knew there would be just as many people upset that Martin lost as there would be people happy he won.

Maybe more.

That shows the respect Martin has in this sport where respect is as important as winning.

"As good as I feel for RCR and Kevin, I feel that bad for Mark," said Burton, who left Roush in 2004 to join Harvick at Richard Childress Racing. "I'm going to tell you that Mark Martin is a champion. I don't care if he ever wins a championship, he's a champion.

"I don't care if he ever wins the Daytona 500, he's a champion. But it would be nice for Mark Martin to be able to see the hardware on the trophy case -- for him."

Martin has plenty of hardware, but likely never will see the two biggest trophies -- the Daytona 500 and Nextel Cup championship -- in the sport.

Unless he backs off his decision to run a part-time schedule -- which could happen since Martin's retirement tour has lasted almost as long as President Bush's second term in office -- he's competed for the championship for the last time.

"I didn't ask for that trophy," Martin said. "I asked for a chance at it. And those guys gave me exactly what I asked for and I let it slip away."

Martin won't know just how close he was to fulfilling a dream until he sees the finish on replay. He likely will feel the mixed emotions of joy from knowing he gave it all he had to sadness from another disappointment.

But he won't let it define his career.

"My heart wasn't broken," Martin said. "I've done this stuff a long time and I've had a lot worse happen than what happened the last 200 yards of this race -- a lot worse.

"If I'm lucky, [owner] Bobby Ginn might put me in the car in the 500 next year, too."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.