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Martin denied title for another season

Through the years, Mark Martin has learned the easiest way to avoid the stabbing pain of failure is to make disappointment a constant companion.

The strategy serves him well.

Martin, with 33 wins, is widely regarded as one of NASCAR's best drivers never to win a Winston Cup championship. He was a runner-up for the fourth time this year but if the popular 43-year-old was upset Sunday it did not show.

"I never really looked at this thing this year and allowed myself to think that I would win it, and that's a good thing because I feel no letdown now," Martin said. "I gave it everything I had from January testing to the last lap. I'm not disappointed with the outcome."

Martin, fourth in the Ford 400, was second to Tony Stewart by a scant 38 points. He also was runner-up in 1990, '94 and '98, seemingly robbed more than once of the title.

In 1990, a 46-point penalty for an illegal carburetor spacer in the season's second race _ a ruling team owner Jack Roush disputes _ allowed the late Dale Earnhardt to the title win by 26. In 1998, Martin won a career-best seven races, but was left in the dust by 13-time winner Jeff Gordon.

Martin's 2002 quest suffered a bitter blow two weeks ago when NASCAR penalized him 25 points for using an unapproved spring at Rockingham.

Roush Racing's appeal of the penalty was rejected, and Martin was relieved the lost points didn't cost him the title.

"I think that was important," Martin said. "It would have been 13 points either way. I feel like they beat us. They earned it, and I congratulate them."

Three weeks ago, Martin trailed by 146 points. He finished fourth or better in the final three races, beating Stewart on the track each time and extending the championship battle to the final race for the first time since 1997.

"It's an incredible feat that this team managed to outrun him three weeks in a row," Martin said. "We whittled it down, down, down each week. Unfortunately, we got a little bit too far behind."

Last season was among Martin's worst. He failed to win or even be competitive, finishing 12th in points and breaking his streak of 12 seasons among the top eight. Many said he was washed up.

But an offseason crew chief swap with Roush Racing teammate Kurt Busch paired Martin with young Ben Leslie, whom Martin credits for reviving his career. Already, Martin is considered among the favorites to win next year's title.

"Some guys go their whole career and never win a championship," said Stewart, in his fourth Winston Cup season. "I hope that doesn't happen to Mark. He is very deserving and I think, before it's all said and done, he'll get his. He's hungry."

And not at all apologetic.

"You can beat me all you want to about running second, and that's not good because I do that sometimes," Martin said. "But I've had a great career and I've done all I can do. I never scored enough points."