Nearing end of his best year, Martin suddenly optimistic

Thursday, November 10, 2005

He stands fifth in the points race after a roller-coaster Chase.

Mark Martin, long known for his gloomy, pessimistic ways, now is predicting victories and talking about the possibility of miracles when it comes to having a legitimate shot at NASCAR's Nextel Cup championship.

Why the change?

"Well, I'll tell you, I've never had a better season than I have this year, and I just feel good about it," Martin said. "This was supposed to be the last, and I came into it feeling like I had to make the most out of it -- and I have."

The 46-year-old Martin, who first raced in NASCAR's top series in 1981, intended to retire from the Cup series at the end of the 2005 season. His plan was to spend the next few years racing toward a real retirement by competing in the less-intense -- and less busy and more fun -- worlds of NASCAR's Busch and Craftsman Truck series.

But the fates conspired against Martin, who now plans to spend one more season in Roush Racing's No. 6 Ford.

Earlier this year, Jack Roush signed Jamie McMurray as the intended replacement for Martin. But McMurray was unable, at the time, to get out of his contract with Chip Ganassi for 2006, so the move was set for 2007.

Then Roush teammate Kurt Busch followed McMurray's lead and signed with Penske Racing South for the 2007 season, hoping to eventually get out of his 2006 obligation to Roush so he could replace retiring Rusty Wallace in Penske's No. 2 Dodge.

After considerable negotiation among the three teams, and some money changing hands, a deal was announced Monday for McMurray and Busch to move to their new teams after this season. But it came too late for Martin to change his plans, and McMurray will move instead to the No. 97 Ford that Busch is relinquishing. Todd Kluever, another Roush find currently in the truck series, will be groomed next year to take over the No. 6 in 2007.

Martin, who acknowledged he didn't initially want to come back, now is resigned to driving another year.

"I'm going to drive this car in 2006 and I only hope I can get as much out of myself and my team next year as we did this year," he said. "It isn't going to be easy."

Martin, who has 35 career victories, including one last month at Kansas Speedway, is a four-time runner-up in the Cup standings.

"I know there's only two races left," he said. "But we're running good and that's all I care about. It would take a miracle for us to win the championship, but we're digging. We're going down with a fight."

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