Although 2005 marks his final season as a fulltime Nextel Cup Series competitor, don't expect Mark Martin to cruise through it collecting tributes and parting gifts as he continues to drive for that elusive Nextel Cup Championship.

Instead of accepting accolades for a NASCAR career that harks back to the 1980s, Martin will be busy in the shop, at the garage and on the track; working to secure what he hopes will be his first Nextel Cup Series title. But already, there are plenty of accolades coming from his peers.

"When I left the drivers meeting at Homestead last year, I grabbed him on the shoulder and he looked at me and I said, 'Buddy, when I grow up I want to be like you,' "Jimmie Johnson said. "I truly meant that. The guy has so much class, so much fire."

A four-time Cup Series runner-up, Martin came close in 2004, finishing fourth behind eventual champion and Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch in the first "Chase for the NASCAR Nextel Cup," NASCAR's new method for crowning a champion. It marked a huge rebound from his 17th-place finish in the 2003 final point standings, and for Martin, who announced last October that 2005 would be his final fulltime season; the opportunity to leave near the top of his form was paramount.

"My biggest fear in 2003 and I agonised over it every day was, 'I don't want to go out like this. What a disgrace," Martin said. "Two thousand four boosted my self-esteem by a lot and I think that we can come back and have a great 2005. If it's not as perfect as we hope, it'll still be not on a great decline after having such a bright and shiny 2004."

One reason for Martin's zeal is his team. It returns intact from 2004, and 2005 will be his second full year with crew chief Pat Tryson. The rest of their crew, whom Martin credits for a strong 2004 effort, stayed put after Martin asked each of them to stick with him for one final campaign. He feels strongly about their decision.

"I asked them to do that," Martin said. "I asked them to stay and it was an honour to me that they did, every one of them stayed. That's very special to me and I'd like to acknowledge that and we're going to go after this thing."

Martin's not sure what 2006 holds; he's interested in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series and he knows he wants to race something, somewhere, some of the time. Son Matt also has begun his racing career and Martin is very involved in that effort. But he has unfinished business of his own.

"That would be pretty strange to not have the champion come back and do the tour," Martin said of the possibility of winning the 2005 Nextel Cup Series title. "It's my hope right now that I can screw it up royally."

 

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