They will drench NASCAR's 2005 champion in champagne, shower him with a $5 million bonus, fete him at New York's Waldorf-Astoria and book him on every late-night talk show imaginable.

At 46, Mark Martin has come closer to these honors only to be denied more times than anyone in stock-car racing history -- finishing second in championship battles of 1990, 1994, 1998 and 2002. In what may be his last go-around on the Nextel Cup circuit, Martin has earned another chance by qualifying for NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup, which gets under way Sunday at New Hampshire International Speedway.

"That trophy would look real pretty on my mantel, and I would love to have that trophy to look at," Martin said in a recent interview. "But I've had a very successful career. And that title wouldn't change me, and it wouldn't change anything."

If Martin sounds braced for defeat, he has reason.

He is arguably the best racer in the 10-man field, which is marked by the absence of NASCAR's most decorated driver, four-time champion Jeff Gordon, and its most popular, Dale Earnhardt Jr., who missed the cut after sub-par seasons.

Of the drivers who qualified, Rusty Wallace has won more NASCAR races (55 to Martin's 34), and Tony Stewart has won championships in multiple disciplines. But in the one form of auto racing that tests pure driving ability -- the International Race of Champions, in which racers compete in identical cars, without pit stops or fuel mileage coming into play -- Martin is without peer, having all but clinched a record fifth championship this year.

So why has Martin, who boasts a rare combination of nerve, intelligence and restraint, fallen short of NASCAR's title so many times?

To understand why, you must understand the politics of NASCAR -- particularly the politics of stock-car racing's formative years -- as well as the power of the late Dale Earnhardt, who edged Martin for the title in 1990 (aided by a controversial NASCAR penalty) and clobbered him for the title in 1994.

Of Martin's four second-place finishes, only the 1990 loss carried profound disappointment, says Geoff Smith, president of Concord, N.C.-based Roush Racing, which owns Martin's No. 6 Ford.

Martin led the standings for several months that year, just his third with owner Jack Roush, a Michigan industrialist who had crossed over to stock-car racing after a successful career in drag racing and road racing. But after the spring race at Richmond, NASCAR slapped Martin with an unprecedented penalty -- $40,000 and 46 points -- for having an improperly mounted intake manifold on his car. As it turned out, NASCAR had issued conflicting instructions on how to install the part; it read one way in the rulebook, and another way in a technical bulletin that followed. The route Martin's team chose complied with the bulletin; moreover, it didn't result in a competitive advantage. But NASCAR officials stripped Martin of 46 points after Earnhardt's car owner, Richard Childress, complained.

"The punishment did not fit the crime," says NBC analyst Benny Parsons, NASCAR's 1973 champion.

Martin went on to lose the title to Earnhardt by 26 points.

Says Texas Motor Speedway President Eddie Gossage, who has followed Martin's career for 25 years, "To me, it was one of the great injustices."

Martin was devastated, according to biographer Larry Woody. But it was just another illustration of the subjectivity of NASCAR's rulebook, printed in black and white but riddled with gray areas.

In stock-car racing's formative years, founder Bill France Sr. used his rulebook to bring order to a wild sport and discipline the ruffians who competed in it. With unchecked latitude to enforce rules, France meted out infractions to punish the disrespectful and looked the other way if it benefited favored sons. While flagrant favoritism waned over the years, the rulebook retained just enough gray to send the message that newcomers needed to earn their place in stock-car racing before being treated with the respect of established stars.

Fifteen years later, Martin prefers not to discuss the 1990 title chase. "That was so long ago I can't remember it," Martin says.

But Roush still faults himself for not being politically savvy enough at the time to lobby on Martin's behalf.

"At that point I was not established," Roush said. "I had not paid my dues. I wasn't accepted with the same respect that people who had spent their lives in the stock-car racing world. And I'm not suggesting that I should have been. But if Mark had been driving for somebody else who was accepted and was established, that probably wouldn't have occurred."

Roush has honed his political skills since. More importantly, he has built a NASCAR empire that has outperformed the best -- Hendrick Motorsports, Richard Childress Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc. -- in recent years. Roush drivers won the championship in 2003 and 2004. This season all five Roush drivers qualified for the Chase for the Nextel Cup -- an achievement that has some rivals griping and others fawning in admiration.

As Martin prepares for his run at the 2005 title, he dismisses any suggestion that he is owed a championship. He looks back on efforts in 1998 and 2002 with tremendous pride; in both years he was edged by racers at the peak of their game. With the help of his crew members, who agreed to return for one last shot at the title, Martin feels he has earned the right to try again. "They are my heroes," he said of his crew. "And so are the fans, who have made 2005 the best of my career. And we're not even done yet."

Regardless of the outcome, Martin insists a NASCAR championship wouldn't validate his career. The IROC series, in which he has finished first or second every year for the past nine years, has done that.

But Woody suspects Martin has simply learned to gird himself against heartache.

"He's been disappointed and hurt four times," Woody says. "It's a little like a kid who keeps asking for a pony at Christmas and never gets one. Finally he quits asking and stops believing in Santa Claus. I think Mark Martin has almost stopped believing in Santa Claus."

His timing also has been unfortunate, biographer Bob Zeller.

"Mark Martin's prime was the prime of Dale Earnhardt," Zeller says. "And so, like any golfer who's playing in the prime of Tiger Woods, those major championships are fewer and farther between because the hero is hogging them."

But if Martin manages to win that elusive NASCAR championship, the entire garage likely would stand and cheer -- and none more fervently than Roush.

"I take a position that I owe Mark a championship," Roush said. "If I can deliver on one of them here at this late hour, I would feel better about myself -- and not any better about him -- than if I don't manage to make it right."

Mark Martin, 46, aims for his first title. But winning, he says, "wouldn't change me, and it wouldn't change anything."