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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2008 Driver Review: Mark Martin

2008 Ride: No. 8 Dale Earnhardt Incorporated Chevrolet
2008 Primary Sponsors: U.S. Army, Principal Financial, Steak-umm Burgers
2008 Owner: Teresa Earnhardt
2008 Crew Chief: Tony Gibson

Stats: 24 races, 0 wins, 4 top fives, 11 top 10s, 28th in points
Best Finish: Third – Richmond, May

High Point: It’s hard to pick just one high point in a season where 49-year-old Mark Martin continues to defy the laws of age in this sport, still remaining a threat to win almost every time he straps behind the wheel. Perhaps this season’s highlight was his dominance at Phoenix in April, where he paced the field for 68 circuits, the most he led in any one event since the very same race in 2006 (111 laps).

Or, maybe it was three weeks later, where he qualified on the outside of the front row at Richmond and was a mainstay in the top five for the entire race. In fact, one could even argue the veteran’s biggest accomplishment was the stabling force he provided to a recovering DEI organization, trying to find its identity after losing the sport’s biggest star to a rival team.

But while any one of those events could be recognized as a high point for Martin, perhaps the biggest and best moment of 2008 happened on July 4th. That was the day that Martin announced he would make one last run at that elusive championship in 2009 with arguably NASCAR’s most powerful team, Hendrick Motorsports. It certainly says something about a man’s career when an eight-time championship car owner named Rick Hendrick believes that Martin can be a legitimate contender for the Sprint Cup title – in a year where that driver will turn half a century old. Some Martin fans may be salivating at perhaps their driver’s best chance to win it all, while others may cringe at the thought of their man signing with his once archrival team. Fans everywhere, however, have to admire the respect the Arkansas native has earned both on and off the track, which has provided an opportunity in the twilight of his career that most drivers can only dream about. That’s why the Independence Day announcement may not only be the high point of Martin’s season, but perhaps his career, as well.

Low Point: Ironically, the low point of 2008 also occurred at the very same spring race in the Arizona desert where Martin dominated. In the final laps of the Subway Fresh Fit 500, crew chief Tony Gibson announced that the No. 8 Chevy, which was leading the race, did not have enough fuel in the tank to make it to the checkered flag without stopping. Despite hearing the dejection in his driver’s voice, Gibson called him onto pit road for a splash of gas, as if the team were playing it safe and running for the championship. Both driver and crew chief would be left to watch Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus take that gamble on fuel and win. The unusual call had many scratching their heads about why Gibson would make such a conservative call with a part-time driver who had his best chance to win since the previous year’s Daytona 500.

Summary: On the surface, it may seem like this year’s part-time gig was not as successful as Martin’s 2007 campaign, which saw him nearly win NASCAR’s crown jewel event and step out of the driver’s seat with the points lead four races in. However, the stats show that these two seasons were almost identical. Martin recorded one less top five in 2008 than the previous year and the same number of top 10s while finishing only one spot lower in driver points. The season was certainly one of inconsistency, though, as Martin would contend in the top five on some weeks and barely crack the top 15 on others.

Overall team performance certainly cannot be discounted when evaluating this driver’s season, either. DEI on the whole struggled throughout the year, especially on intermediate tracks, which are normally a strong suit for Martin. Now, DEI faces serious challenges of improving its on-track performance while overcoming a lack of sponsorship in a difficult economy.

Off-Track News: The U.S. Army has always been more than just a sponsor name on the hood of a racecar, and Martin and the No. 8 team took the responsibility of representing our country’s men and women in uniform very seriously in 2008. Throughout the season, both driver and team honored our soldiers in various ways. At Texas in the spring, the team represented Staff Sergeant Kenneth Thomas, who earned the Silver Star for saving a number of his comrade’s lives in Iraq. Staff Sgt. Michael Gainey, who was awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze star for his wounded battle in Iraq, was next in line, becoming a special team guest for the Coca-Cola 600. At the June Michigan event, Martin and his team honored Mary Cay Thorrez-Wheeler, a mother of six soldiers, one of whom was killed in battle. At the Brickyard 400, Sgt. 1st Class John Adams and Sgt. 1st Class Robert Groff, both Bronze Star with Valor recipients, watched the race from the No. 8 pits.

Martin’s own son also made some news, as it was officially reported in June that Matt Martin had decided to pursue other options outside of racing. His father, who knows the rigors of the sport all too well, could not be happier.

Team Ranking: Martin Truex Jr. might be No. 1 on the door, but the No. 8 team is back on top of the DEI team rankings. To put it mildly, the 2008 season turned out to be a major letdown for the Truex after a breakthrough performance the season before. As a result, the New Jersey-native recorded two less top fives and the same number of top 10s as Martin, who ran in 12 fewer events (one less top 10 than the U.S. Army team, if Aric Almirola’s eighth-place finish is counted). Paul Menard and Regan Smith barely register on the radar screen after horrific seasons that saw them finish 26th and 34th, respectively, in the driver standings. Therefore, the edge has to go to Tony Gibson’s crew, who made the most out of a bad situation at DEI.

2009 Outlook: Next season has to be the most intriguing one of Martin’s long career. It may be naïve to think that the new No. 5 driver/team combination can win the title in only their first year together. However, one has to think that if anyone can pull it off, it would be the driver who seems to get better with age, and the sport’s most successful team over the past two decades. Realistically speaking, though, a win and a Chase berth is certainly not out of the question for Martin in 2009.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: B+
2008 Grade: B+

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