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Martin Nearly Gets Elusive Daytona Win

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AP
Mark Martin went part time and nearly won big time. Martin, who walked away from Roush Racing after 19 successful seasons to run a partial schedule, came a few feet from ending 25 years of frustration in NASCAR's premier event Sunday.

Kevin Harvick edged Martin in a wild final lap, forcing the 48-year-old driver to settle for second place in the season-opening Daytona 500.

"I probably will feel some sadness somewhere along the line," Martin said. "(But) my heart wasn't broken. I've done this stuff a long time, and I've had a lot worse happen than what happened there in the last 200 yards."

Martin has experienced plenty of heartache and disappointment at Daytona. He's wrecked more times than he cares to remember. He's spent entire races near the back of the pack. He's had podium finishes and early exits.

He's never been this close, which explains why he was more encouraged than discouraged Sunday.

Martin's best previous finish in the Daytona 500 was third in 1995. With so little success at NASCAR's most famous track, it has always been his least favorite venue.

That nearly changed Sunday.

Martin was leading with two laps to go and looked like he would hold off Kyle Busch. But Busch started a multi-car accident in the final turn that left Martin with no one pushing him to the finish line.

Harvick and Matt Kenseth teamed up on the outside, allowing Harvick to pull alongside Martin and edge him at the line.

"I knew I was going to be the bad guy there at the end," Harvick said.

Martin would have won the race had NASCAR officials waved the yellow flag a few seconds earlier _ while he was still out front. Instead, Harvick drove by and picked up the victory.

Martin could have been sour, and no one would have blamed him.

But Martin got exactly what he wanted _ a shot at winning the Daytona 500.

"They gave me a chance. That's all I ever asked," Martin said in his usual self-deprecating tone. "I really hate I let them down. I gave them what I could, but I just didn't get it done."

Considered the greatest driver to never win a championship and respected like few others in the sport, Martin left Jack Roush because the owner wouldn't give him the flexibility he needed as he eases into retirement.

He took a job with upstart Ginn Racing, driving for a Florida land developer who bought an existing second-tier team to satisfy his love of NASCAR. Bobby Ginn lured Martin to his stable, with the promise of a scaled-back schedule that Martin could set.

He surprisingly put Daytona on the list, even though restrictor-plate racing always has given Martin fits. He'd never really come close to winning the Great American Race _ even during his best years while driving for one of NASCAR's best teams.

"I knew that I might have the best chance ever the day after we signed the deal, and it came true," Martin said. "That was true. I did have the best shot ever."

He nearly made it happen.

"As good as I feel for (Richard Childress Racing) and Kevin, I feel that bad for Mark," third-place finisher Jeff Burton said. "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 said "it would have broke me in half" had Harvick or anyone else let him win the race.

"That's what I love about this sport _ it's hard," Martin said. "It's what's driven me for over 30 years. That's what I love about it, and that's why I'm here. I had the choice of whether or not I wanted to race the Daytona 500. I wanted a chance. I wanted a shot at it, and these guys gave me a shot."