CONCORD, N.C. (AP) – Mark Martin has no regrets and no second thoughts about his impending retirement. He is positive that this season will be his last at NASCAR’s highest level.

But after winning NASCAR’s All-Star race – outsmarting Elliott Sadler to take the lead away from him 19 laps from the finish Saturday night – the 46-year-old Martin proved he’s leaving at the top of his game.

Sure, he’ll use this year to take one last shot at winning the series championship that has painfully eluded him during his 22 seasons. And if he should fail yet again, Martin is certain he doesn’t have the energy to try again.

“I’ve already said I can’t sign up for another one of these (full seasons),” Martin said. “This business is not easy, and I have had to reach. Last year I had to reach deeper than I’ve ever reached in my life to contend for that championship.

“I thought there was no way to find any more, and I’ve had to reach even deeper this year to find some more. And that’s the real reason why I can’t do it again next year. There’s no possible way I could step it up another notch from 2005.”

Well, that’s what he says now. A few more wins like this one and who knows what might happen?

After all, Martin vowed to come back to the Nextel All-Star Challenge next season just moments after crossing the finish line Saturday night at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. As an All-Star race winner (Martin also won in 1998), he is eligible to enter the race forever.

So as thrilled as he was to see Martin win, car owner Jack Roush was over the moon after Martin said he’d come back again.

That vow gave Roush something to cling to, even if it is a longshot.

“There’s a crack in the armor here,” Roush said. “I don’t hold out much hope that Mark would reconsider his retirement plans, but at least if we can get one more race out of him in 2006, that will be better than nothing.”

See, Roush is so much more than Martin’s boss. The two built Roush Racing together, beginning in 1988 when Roush first launched his race team and signed Martin on to be his driver.

“The commitment that Mark made to me and to Roush Racing was huge,” Roush said. “I was not established. There was a lot that I didn’t know. I was late middle age when I started. He had a real handicap. He hung with me and kept the faith and he helped me.”

Together, they built Roush Racing into one of the elite teams in NASCAR. Roush has five cars in the Nextel Cup Series and his drivers have won the past two Cup championships. He also has titles in the Busch and Truck Series.

But Martin has never held the championship trophy. Instead, he’s a four-time runner-up. He’s also finished third in the standings another four times.

And that, Roush says, is his fault.

“If I had been better connected, if I had been wiser, if I had done a better job, he’d have had two or three championships right now,” Roush said. “The fact he doesn’t have those is my fault. I bear the responsibility for it.

“That will be diminished some if we can save this year.”

Can Martin actually win his first title in this, his final year? He doubts it, but vowed to “fight like a dog to do it.”

The All-Star race didn’t count in the standings – Martin settled for the $1 million payout – but he heads into next week’s Coca-Cola 600 here in good shape in the points race.

He’s currently 10th in the standings and has five top 10 finishes in 11 races this year.

He’s also buoyed by the fact that he’s won at three of the next four tracks the series heads to.

“We’re going to come back here with fire in our eyes at the 600, and, man, we go from here to Dover, there to Pocono, and then from there to Michigan, we could get on a roll here,” Martin said. “I’m excited about 2006, and I’m not regretting my decision at all. This just makes it even better.

“And we’re not done yet.”

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