After another long offseason, NASCAR is set to return to our lives with the 31st Annual Bud Shootout in less than two weeks! That means it’s time to get the blood racing and your mind fixated on another year of our sport. This week, we’ll get you thinking on six big questions facing NASCAR this year; as we try and find the answers, the staff you know and love will come at you with our usual blend of facts, opinion, and most of all … a sense of humor. After all, we’ll all need to laugh if these predictions blow up in our face come November …
Today’s Season Preview Topic: At 50 years old, Mark Martin is attempting the unthinkable: a return to full-time racing in the Cup Series. With good equipment underneath him (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets), is he capable of putting together a run at the Chase (and if he gets there, the championship)? Or is it too little, too late for this sport’s version of Dan Marino?
Tom Bowles, Editor-In-Chief: (Mondays/Bowles-Eye View)
No question about it, Martin can still get the job done. New fans don’t remember this stuff, but men like Harry Gant and Morgan Shepherd (yes, that Morgan Shepherd) were wheeling cars into the winner’s circle at 51, 52 years old in the 1990s.
But visiting victory lane is one thing (which I guarantee Mark will do this year); winning the championship is a whole other matter altogether. Martin does have the advantage of three previous Chase appearances under his belt, and he knows what to do to make the top 12. But once he gets there, Martin will likely be up against his own teammates – Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. – for Chase supremacy. All three are hungrier than ever, and Johnson especially gives Martin very little room for error. A title would need to come with an above average amount of luck; and unfortunately, the last 20 years have proven that’s a difficult task for racing’s hard-luck runner-up.
Toni Montgomery, Senior Editor: (Fridays/Rick Crawford Driver Diary)
Martin is no stranger to the Chase, and there’s no reason he can’t get there again; although, he’s inheriting a Hendrick team that didn’t run Chase-worthy last year, so that does make it more challenging than the surface might suggest. Also, there is the question of whether the conservative strategy – a favorite of Martin – can win the Chase after all.
Amy Henderson, Assistant Editor: (Fridays/Holding A Pretty Wheel)
I don’t think it’s too little, too late, but the stars would have to align mightily – either that, or HMS will have to pull unprecedented team orders to make this championship happen. Sure, Martin is a sentimental favorite; but how do you justify taking away from seven combined championships and the sport’s Most Popular Driver – all still in their prime – to the extent that it would take to bring a title to a driver who, as a physiological fact of life, does not have the reaction time or reflexes he had a decade ago. Martin is surely a sentimental favorite… but he may not be a realistic one.
Cami Starr, Fantasy Racing Editor: (Thursdays/Picks ‘N’ Pans)
Given Martin’s talent and the equipment he has this year – combined with the lower number of truly competitive teams – he should make the Chase without much of a problem. But once Mark gets into the Chase, I don’t see that he’s at the level where he can beat out the top competition. He might find that skipping certain tracks over the past few years in the new car will come back to bite him.
Matt Taliaferro, Assistant Editor: (Thursdays/Fanning The Flames)
Oh, Martin will make the Chase, alright. He’d most likely have done so the last two seasons in DEI equipment had he run all 36 races. But while I see Martin as a shoe-in for the Chase, he’s a driver that will ultimately fall just shy of a championship. Martin will get the best Hendrick has to offer – make no mistake – but he’s not the type of driver that will light it up in a 10-race Chase. I’ve got him penciled in to finish fourth when all’s said and done.
Bryan Davis Keith, Assistant Editor: (Sundays/Nationwide Series Breakdown)
With the equipment he’s getting into, Martin should not have trouble being competitive all season and making the Chase. But Martin has been there before, and the Roush equipment he challenged for the title with earlier in his career was certainly no slouch. Hendrick cars or not, Martin still has to knock off Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and his all-star teammates at HMS to score an elusive Cup title. That’s an awfully tall order for any driver in his first year with a team.
Mike Lovecchio, Assistant Editor: (Mondays/10 Points To Ponder)
Martin has run well in limited starts since leaving Roush, and I expect him to do the same at Hendrick. He’s already got the experience, and now he’s got arguably the best equipment in the Sprint Cup garage. Winning the championship may be a stretch… but making the Chase is a possibility. More than anything, though, I would love to see him win that elusive Daytona 500.
Matt McLaughlin, Senior Writer: (Mondays/Thinkin’ Out Loud)
Here’s my take – and I say this as an old guy who would like nothing better than to see Martin win this year’s title. Martin will do better in Rick Hendrick equipment than Earnhardt Jr. did with the same stuff last year – but that’s not going to be good enough. As it stands written in the Book of the Other Bob: “He wants to dream like a young man, With the wisdom of an old man, He wants his home and security, He wants to live like a sailor at sea. Beautiful loser, where you gonna fall?, When you realize you just can’t have it all.”
Jeff Meyer, Senior Writer: (Thursdays/Voices From The Heartland)
Since when is racing at 50 unthinkable? Is the questioner suggesting that there be a mandatory retirement age in NASCAR? Last time I looked, most everyone is excited as hell for Mark to be in Hendrick cars! No one is focusing on his age – get real! Molest me not with this pocket calculator stuff! (And I will refrain from even commenting on the Dan Marino reference, as I doubt the author of the question was barely out of diapers when Marino was playing.)
Tommy Thompson, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Thompson In Turn 5)
He’s stock car racing’s version of Dan Marino… but with better knees. Martin certainly can still compete and rack up a boatload of top fives and top 10s, based on his impressive showings in a part-time role last season with DEI in mediocre equipment. He won’t win the championship with a new team; but he wants to race full-time one more year, Rick Hendrick wants him, and the sport is just a little bit classier when Martin is in the race field.
Beth Lunkenheimer, Frontstretch Truck Series Expert: (Fridays/Tearing Apart The Trucks)
Age doesn’t matter when it comes to talent, and Martin has a very real chance at not only making the Chase but also challenging for the championship. With HMS Chevrolets and teammates like Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt Jr., I expect to see Martin run competitively through the majority of the season.
Vito Pugliese, Senior Writer: (Wednesdays/Voice Of Vito)
Some liken Martin to the Dan Marino of NASCAR; I prefer to think of him as Rocky Balboa. The only difference here is that Rocky won the title a couple of times. Then again, some maintain that Martin already did win a title in 1990; the same people usually also contend that he won the Daytona 500 in 2007. Whatever your leanings, you can’t help but to pull for Martin to contend for the Sprint Cup in 2009. He should have won a race the previous two seasons (the Daytona 500 in 2007, Phoenix in April of 2008), and he also should have won a championship on about four separate occasions. He may be 50, but much like Rocky, he’s still in better shape than 90% of guys half his age. He also has a Hendrick Chevrolet, the respect of his teammates and the admiration of a car owner who is operating the most successful operation in motorsports this side of Maranello. Considering Martin’s skill, conditioning, and a chance to rest and catch his breath the last two years, he’ll be in the thick of it come the fall, just like Gant in 1991-92, and the same as he always had been up through his last full-time stint in 2006.
Tony Lumbis, Frontstretch NASCAR Rookie Expert: (Mondays/Rookie Report)
Just like Dan Marino never seemed to have a running game to help propel the Dolphins to the Super Bowl, Martin never seemed to have an engine program that was strong or durable enough to win him that elusive championship. (A glance through his history shows that mechanical problems plagued him through his career with Roush). That should no longer be an issue with Hendrick. Also, consider that Martin left full-time competition at the top of his game, as one of only three drivers at the time to make all three Chases from 2004-06 (Johnson and Matt Kenseth were the other two). The veteran did not show any signs of letting up either, threatening to win on multiple occasions during this two year part-time gig. With that in mind, this new team and driver combination has all the makings of becoming a Chase contender. Don’t expect Martin to be sitting at the head table in New York, though, as expectations for a championship for any driver/team combo in their first year is a little unrealistic.
Danny Peters, Senior Writer: (Tuesdays/Yellow Stripe)
Yes, it probably is too little, too late – but hope springs eternal, and why shouldn’t Martin race his way to an improbable title? His composure and consistency should see him make the Chase; and from there, who knows? It’s a longshot, for sure, but it’s not out of the question as Martin himself readily acknowledges. It should be fun to watch him try…
Kurt Smith, Senior Writer: (Fridays/Happy Hour)
It’s easy to think that Martin can still get it done. He contended for a couple of wins last season in inferior equipment. But Martin is also going back to the grueling full schedule after running only 20-some races last season.
Still, if anyone can run 36 races a year at 50 and be competitive, my money is on Mark. He will be racing in some of the best cars out there, and he is probably the best driver in history not to win a championship. Bet on him to make the Chase… but as far as contending for a long-awaited title? He’ll need some luck for that. Still, no one is more due for some luck. And it would be a great ending to a very underrated career.
P.S. Now would be a good time for Viagra to make a comeback sponsoring him, wouldn’t it? (Or, should I say for Viagra to rise up and be noticed again?)
S.D. Grady, Newsletter Contributor & Fan Columnist: (Tuesdays/Fan’s View)
I love Martin. He is devoted to going fast… it makes him smile. But, his glory days are over. He’s not 25, angry-hungry and desperate for that Cup. When given the choice between moving a competitor out of the way for the lead or taking the safe maneuver, Mark will usually choose the clean fender. Chase? Maybe. Cup? No way.
Phil Allaway, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Talking NASCAR TV)
Martin is definitely capable of putting together a championship run, especially if he has a great start to the season – like he did in 2007 while driving the No. 01 for Bobby Ginn. However, it’s not likely. There would have to be immediate chemistry in the team and luck would have to go Martin’s way. A win this year would not be out of the question, though.
Doug Turnbull, Website Contributor: (Tuesdays/Who’s Hot & Who’s Not)
Martin will almost certainly make the Chase; he likely would have made the Chase in the Army car if he had run the full season the last two years. Once there, Martin also will likely be in the running for the title until the end of the year – but he will not win it. Though he will run consistently this season, Martin’s chances of driving to victory lane are much less than making the Chase, since scoring a Chase berth is easier than winning a race these days (see Gordon, Kenseth and Kevin Harvick from 2008).
John Potts, Website Contributor: (Fridays/Driven To The Past)
I’ve known Martin and considered him a friend since he was in his teens. I think he can still do anything he sets his mind to, and I’m rooting for him this year. No question, he’s kept his body in condition for it.
Mike Ravesi, Website Contributor: (Mondays/Bubble Breakdown)
Martin is absolutely going to make the Chase. You can’t tell me otherwise, especially given that Hendrick equipment and the three teammates he’s going to have at his disposal. And as good a shape as Martin keeps himself in, he’ll have enough left to make a serious run at his first championship.