Heading Into 2011: Chasing The Probable Top 12 in Sprint Cup Racing (Pt. 4 of 12)
He's NASCAR's version of a Dan Marino, Boomer Esiason, Charles Barkley, and Karl Malone - the lovable athlete who's obtained just about every form of success in their sport except a championship.
Often a top contender on the Sprint Cup circuit, Mark Martin has been a bride's maid in the points race (get this number lovers) on five occasions (1990, '94, '98, '02, and '09).
These weren't your pedestrian, "he got lucky" type defeats - rather, Martin would compile a season's worth of strong performances, only to be bested at the end by a better driver and team.
Call it what you want, be it a curse or the fact that even when the Batesville, AK native is at his best, someone else is just a bit better when it all matters.
The 2009 season was your expected, superb Mark Martin-like year, with the ageless wonder putting together a stellar effort with five wins, 14 top-fives, 21 top-10's and seven poles.
Those numbers were good enough to place second in the final points standings to teammate and then four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson.
Expectations went up a bit higher for Martin, who proved that age and wear didn't slow him down in a sport full of young lions in '09.
However, the laws of averages caught up with the 51-year-old driver in 2010, particularly when NASCAR made the change from the wing to spoiler in late March.
Per AP Sports Writer Jenna Fryer's article on June 18, 2010, crew chief Alan Gustafson felt that the No. 5 Go Daddy Chevorlet (and for that matter, Hendrick Motorsports) struggled with the transition to the spoiler, saying the following:
"I will be the first to admit I didn't do a good job with it. We should have known better. We're paid to know better, but we missed it and didn't get it as quickly as we should."
The result? Well it wasn't pretty.
A total letdown from 2009, with this past season showing the weaknesses of the Hendrick Motorsports unit in comparison to the stout and steady efforts of Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing.
In the end, Martin and Gustafson led the No. 5 team to a 13th place points finish, which saw a big goose egg in terms of victories, one pole, seven top-fives and 11 top-10's.
Winless in 2010, their struggles were indicative of Hendrick Motorsports' inability to duplicate its success in the past several season.
Sure, teammate Jimmie Johnson captured another title and won six races, but in contrast to the standards that the 26-year-old organization has set since its first title in 1995 (much less, since the No. 48 team joined the Hendrick campus), it was their weakest effort in 15 years.
Accustomed to winning multiple races and finishing in the top-10 in points, it was rather uncharacteristic to see "Mr. Consistency" consistently placing in the 11th-43rd range, although he only had four DNFs.
No matter, as Rick Hendrick didn't like what he saw across the board with the Nos. 5, 24, and 88 teams, who all failed to visit the winner's circle at least once this past year.
As a result, he decided to shuffle his drivers and crew chiefs around in what's shaped up to be one of the biggest off-season stories of the winter.
Essentially, while the crew chiefs stayed put in their campuses (Gustafson working with Lance McGrew, while Steve Letarte coordinates with Chad Knaus), the drivers and team numbers changed.
In other words, HMS no longer consists of the Nos. 5/88 and Nos. 24/48, but the Nos. 5/24 and Nos. 48/88 combination.
Gustafson was transferred from the No. 5 team to the No. 24 collective, where he'll be working with Jeff Gordon, while Steve Letarte finds himself collaborating with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 group.
For Martin, it might not be somewhat of a stretch to feel that he's a bit of a lame duck with the crew chief and team shuffle, as he'll be working with Lance McGrew.
It's uncertain times for the No. 5 team, which will probably look drastically different in 2012 when Kasey Kahne and crew chief Kenny Francis replace the Martin/McGrew pairing.
While it's shaping up to be Martin's last year with Hendrick Motorsports, there's still hope that 2011 will be his finest effort yet.
Sure, he's ranked No. 9 in The Podium Finish's 2011 Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship field. In contrast to his season last year, this projected ranking shows that there will be huge improvements across the board with the No. 5 team.
One of Martin's finest qualities is his ability to dig deep and know that a race isn't won on lap one, halfway in a 500 mile race, or much less, with 20 laps to go.
Rather, his patience, cool, and poise guide him to ease his car every lap, somewhat playing possum on most occasions before attacking and charging his way to the front during crunch time.
On some occasions, there are days when Martin's car is just tremendously fast and handling well from the moment it's unloaded from the hauler, meaning for a very long weekend for the rest of the 42 competitors who've shown up at the track.
Age isn't a factor, as he's one of the most physically and mentally fit racers competing full-time in the Cup series. Seldom does he succumb to the wear and tear of a race, although you have to wonder just how much is left in his tank as far as compiling a solid season after another.
You have to wonder how his pit crew as well as his crew chief will respond to the changes made for the 2011 season. McGrew has only the Daytona tire test in mid-December, as well as the upcoming Preseason Thunder test in January for a baseline in terms of communicating with his driver.
Inheriting the former No. 88 team, which was previously known as the supposedly haunted No. 25 Chevy, will Martin debunk and prove that the "curse of Tim Richmond" is indeed NASCAR folklore? Time will tell.
There's no doubt that Martin will give it all he's got in 2011, as he's proven in his 18 years with Jack Roush's No. 6 Ford and his part time campaigns when he drove the Nos. 01/8 Army Chevrolet in 2007-'08.
To say the least, nobody will be more driven and determined to hoist the grandest trophy in stock car racing than Mark Martin, often labeled as the "best driver to not win a NASCAR Cup title."
What would it mean for Martin to finally win it all?
Well, it'd complete his trophy mantle, which includes the 2002 Coca-Cola 600, two Southern 500's, and those five IROC championships. All said, he's collected 40 Cup victories, 264 top-fives and 428 top-10's through 794 starts.
Mind you, this doesn't even consider his impressive Nationwide Series numbers, which are David Pearson-like in terms of winning multiple races as a part-time competitor.
Regardless of who you may cheer for on race day, if your driver fell short of winning the Sprint Cup in 2011, you probably wouldn't mind Mark Martin capturing the championship.
A Mark Martin championship would be as meaningful as John Elway winning two Super Bowl titles in his last years in the NFL or Ray Bourque getting the monkey off his back in 2001 as a member of that season's Stanley Cup champions aka the Colorado Avalanche.
It'll take a lot for Martin to best today's elite stars but if anyone can muster one more solid push in the Chase, it's the 5' 6'' wonder from The Natural State, whose talent behind a stock car is indeed just that.