Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday June 11, 2008
Last season, two-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart predicted that Dale Earnhardt, Inc. would become “a museum” without their star driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
As we approach one year after Junior’s official announcement he’d signed with Hendrick Motorsports, it’s a prophecy that looks like it may be coming to fruition.
A look at the driver standings would certainly, at least at first glance, confirm that DEI drivers Paul Menard, Regan Smith, and Martin Truex, Jr. are not among the elite of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Far from it; of the three, only Truex, Jr. — currently 16th in points — is even within the Top 20 in the rankings. In fact, Menard at 27th and Smith at 31st are achieving genuine “also ran” status in their equipment as of late, with Smith’s team even rumored to shut down due to lack of financial support. As for Truex, Jr. — the organization’s lone Chase qualifier from 2007 — he has seen the No. 1 team’s performances languish to this point, remaining winless through 14 races this season to date. More than anything else, his struggles might be the best argument that DEI is on a downward spiral to non-competitiveness.
But there’s one piece to this puzzle that just doesn’t fit. How is it that semi-retired Cup star Mark Martin continues to turn in solid, Top 10 performances in DEI equipment assumed to be far off the pace?
There seems to be no easy answer to that. At Pocono last Sunday, Martin finished 10th in a strong race that saw him running among the Top 5 for all but a small part of the physically grueling event. Martin, who has competed in 11 of the first 14 Sprint Cup races this season, has outperformed his DEI teammates by leaps and bounds so far. And though Martin has spotted Truex, Jr. three races already, he still has scored five Top 10 finishes on his part-time schedule; that’s in comparison to four Top 10 performances for Truex and the No. 1.
With a few exceptions, Martin has been stout all year in the No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet. Not only has he scored a pair of Top 5 finishes, he very possibly had a victory secured earlier this year at Phoenix; that is, if new crew chief Tony Gibson had a little faith in the Batesville, Arkansas native’s ability to conserve fuel. Nonetheless, there are sound arguments that if Martin was in the ride full-time, DEI would have at least one of its four teams solidly within the Top 12 in driver points, well positioned for a run at the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship this year.
Still not convinced that Martin’s in a league of his own? This assertion actually has some stats to back it up. Tony Stewart, with an average finishing position this season of 18th, currently sits 12th in championship points. Well, in Martin’s 11 Cup appearances this season, he is sporting a 14.5 average finish. Clearly, the man’s performing at a level that would have him sitting well ahead of Stewart’s final Chase-eligible position with ease. Indeed, if he were to switch to full-time status, it’s safe to say Martin would be looking at one more shot — this time in DEI equipment — at winning a coveted Cup championship. Yet, when Martin is not in the cockpit of the No. 8, it rarely performs anywhere near the level that it does for the five-time IROC Champion. Rookie Aric Almirola, who has spelled Martin in the three races the 49-year-old veteran has sat out, is only managing a 27.7 average finishing position — with just one Top 10 to show for his efforts to date.
To compare the 23-year-old Almirola to Martin certainly is not fair; but what happens to DEI equipment when Mark Martin takes a vacation? Is he simply twice as good as the young “hot shoe” — or is there more than meets the eye?
It’s the latter theory which appears to hold major weight. With the possible exception of Truex, Jr. — who certainly does have his moments — it’s as if Martin is living on a different planet from the rest of his DEI teammates these days. But it’s a planet that has him in a very competitive race car week in and week out, one where DEI actually could be listed as a serious threat. With an average finishing position that would have him battling Greg Biffle (who also has a 14.5 finishing average) for seventh place in the driver point standings, Martin would clearly be labeled a title contender with three more starts under his belt.
It is inarguable that Mark Martin is among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, but talent will only take even the greats so far… even they need a good racecar. Don’t take my word for it: just ask Richard Petty, Bill Elliott or Darrell Waltrip to name a few. Those are all drivers also considered among the all-time greatest who saw their careers fizzle out as the competition became progressively tougher; already suffering the effects of middle age, their equipment — despite their career’s worth of talents behind the wheel — proved unable to keep up over the long run.
But Martin apparently is very secure in DEI’s ability to provide competitive equipment. In fact, he is so confident that he has recently been almost brash in his praise and assessment of his DEI team.
“I think we should be very good here [Pocono] Sunday. I think we should be decent at Michigan. I’m planning on winning the Brickyard,” said the normally reserved Martin last week. “We’ve got the stuff. We’ve got the team. I have never planned on anything, but that’s my plan for the Brickyard. That’s the crown jewel.”
What the answer is to DEI’s overall poor performance of their four-car Cup team might not be easily remedied, but Martin has shown that the potential is certainly there for the organization to prove Stewart’s caustic prediction of doom for DEI wrong. But still, to survive in the performance-driven NASCAR Sprint Cup series, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. must come up with all the right answers for the rest of their teams — and fast.
With that in mind, a good first question might be, “Mark, how are you and your guys doing it?” And when he answers … the rest of the team better listen intently.
And…That’s my view from Turn 5.
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