Allison paved way for venerable Martin

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- Bobby Allison realizes that his record as NASCAR's oldest Cup champion is on the line this weekend, and he gladly would give it up.

Allison wouldn't feel that way about just any old driver. But this is Mark Martin, a man who holds a special place in Allison's heart.

Allison believed in Martin long before almost anyone else did. And if it wasn't for Allison, Martin might not be here today with a chance to win the title at age 50.

You have to go back 22 years to know the story. Allison was nearing the end of his remarkable career. His friend Jack Roush was about to start his career as a NASCAR team owner.

Roush needed a driver, and he needed someone he trusted to steer him to the right guy. So he went to Allison and asked for his advice.

"Jack came to me and said he wanted my opinion for someone to put in his car," Allison said Thursday. "I had raced against Mark on the short tracks in ASA events through the Midwest.

"I was familiar with his talent and his enthusiasm. So I told Jack, 'Why not try Mark Martin?' And he did."

Martin had raced in parts of four Cup seasons in the 1980s, but going to Roush's new team in 1988 was his big break.

Martin took time to acknowledge that fact Thursday during the championship contenders' news conference.

"It's so good to see Bobby Allison here," Martin said. "I owe a part of what I do today to Bobby."

Allison, a Miami native, is the honorary starter for Sunday's Ford 400. He's looking pretty spry at 71, 26 years removed from his only Cup title, which he won in 1983, when he was 45.

No man on the planet knows better how Martin feels than Allison. Until he finally got the Cup title, Allison held the moniker Martin has now -- the best driver never to win a championship.

"I was worried about that, for sure," Allison said of his runner-up status. "I got so close so many times. I was at my wits' end. And really, I had to sell my soul to finally get that championship. I made a deal with [team owner] Bill Gardner where I didn't get paid the year I won it."

Allison was a five-time runner-up before he finally got it done. Martin will become a five-time runner-up if Jimmie Johnson holds on to win his historic fourth consecutive Cup title Sunday.

But Martin has said many times that it doesn't matter to him now. Does Allison believe it?

"No. He wants to be a champion," Allison said. "For everyone of us, this is what turns us on. It's not just to win a race, but to win the big race. The championship is the race of the season.

"He wants it, but I understand he has to keep that in some kind of range that he can deal with it. You guys [the media] can put so much pressure on us poor little racer guys."

Martin is 108 points behind Johnson entering the final race. Unless Johnson has a major problem with a crash or a mechanical failure, Martin will fall short again.

"I'm not looking over my shoulder or looking ahead, either," Martin said. "We could wind up fourth in the points. But I'm not worried about that or Jimmie.

"It's been the best year of my life, professionally and personally. To give the best team out here a run for their money has made me very proud."

Whether it's Johnson or Martin, Rick Hendrick will earn a record ninth Cup championship as a team owner. He said his organization is better than ever before because he persuaded Martin to race full time again and take over the No. 5 Chevy.

Before Martin arrived, Hendrick had a message for all this employees: "If Mark Martin joins our organization, it will make all of us better," Hendrick told them. "And he has made all of us better. I don't know how this guy hasn't won a championship."

If there is a reason, maybe it's that Martin was too nice a guy. He never wanted to win a race at the expense of wrecking someone else.

"If you do a good job, you don't have to wear a mask and a gun," Martin said. "That's not how I want to win. You race people the way you want to be raced."

Martin is the perfect example of sportsmanship, but many people do list him among the best ever to sit in a stock car. Martin disagrees.

"My career does not stand up against the greats in this business," he said.

If so, why is he so revered?

"Because I'm a worker," he said. "I'm the guy that rolls up his sleeves. I worked really hard and raced pretty hard. And I tried to do it fair and square."

Whether he wins a championship or not, this is how he'll be remembered. Martin has raced clean his entire career and done things with dignity.

It's interesting that Johnson, the man Martin hopes to catch for the title, also is seen in that light.

On Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway, they'll race for the same goal. But what about the overall goal? Johnson was asked what more he would want for himself if he wins his fourth title.

In other words, what's the meaning of it all? Johnson said he just wants to keep doing what he's doing.

But Martin's long journey has enabled him see it a little differently. At 50, he understands who he is and what drives him.

"I've thought about that myself," Martin said. "All I've ever wanted was to be a winner. And that doesn't mean in my career or Monopoly or Scrabble."

We know what he means. Even Allison knew it back in 1987. Martin wanted to be a winner in life.

No worries there. Win or lose on Sunday, that part was decided long ago.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.