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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thompson in Turn 5: So Far, Mark Martin’s Season is Not Mark Martin-like

It has been more than 10 years since the newest addition to the Hendrick Motorsports stable, Mark Martin, has scored four wins this early in a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season. That was in 1998, when Martin would go on to win a total of seven events but nonetheless finish second to a young upstart by the name of Jeff Gordon. That new hot-shoe trumped the Batesville, Arkansas native’s win total by five, visiting victory lane in an incredible 13 races on the year. In the end, Martin had to settle for the runner-up position in the final driver standings, a disappointing 364 points behind Gordon.

Conventional wisdom would say then that if Martin has a handful of wins under his belt during a season, particularly this early, when coupled with his propensity for taking care of his equipment and finishing races it makes him a cinch to be a leading contender for the championship. But you can go ahead and throw conventional wisdom out the window so far this year. Martin’s series-leading win total aside, he is far from competing with present points leader Tony Stewart; or, for that matter, distant runner-up Gordon. Fact is, he is in a tight battle just to even become one of the 12 drivers eligible to compete in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship.

Indeed, it is the most uncharacteristic of seasons for the elder statesman of the Sprint Cup circuit. The four-time bridesmaid to the championship has never been a threat to post double-digit wins in any given year, but would score consistent top fives and top 10s with a smattering of victories when in legitimate competition for a title. However, though the wins are coming for the driver of HMS’s No. 5 Chevrolet, his trademark consistency has so far abandoned him in 2009.

Entering this coming weekend’s 20th race of the year, the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, Martin finds himself 11th in points, barely ahead of two former teammates at Roush Fenway Racing. The 50-year-old Martin leads Matt Kenseth by just one for the 12th and final Chase-eligible slot, and is a measly 11 points up on Greg Biffle, currently holding down 13th place as the first driver on the outside looking in.

Now, making the Chase is not a lock by any stretch of the imagination for Martin, as his competition is impressive. Besides Biffle and Kenseth, Michael Waltrip Racing’s much-improved race team and driver David “The Franchise” Reutimann lurks in 14th place, with only 77 points separating him and Martin. There are still seven races to be run before the field is set for the 10-race playoff, and it is reasonable to expect that the rankings will change for Martin, either for the better… or the worse.

But you’d think those trips to victory lane would leave him in far better shape. Not only is Martin’s four wins tops in the series, four drivers ranked ahead of him in points – Denny Hamlin (fifth), Carl Edwards (sixth), Ryan Newman (seventh) and Juan Pablo Montoya (ninth) – have none whatsoever! To stay ahead of him, they are beating the Master of Consistency at his own game… running near the front while avoiding those dreaded DNFs.

The problem is pretty self-evident here… when Martin doesn’t win, he all too often does not finish anywhere close to the top 10. And that’s something that’s very un-Mark Martin-like to those who have watched him for decades. Throughout his career, from the underfunded attempts at breaking into NASCAR, to his initial campaigns with a new Cup team owner by the name of Jack Roush, to semi-retirement stints with Ginn Racing and Dale Earnhardt Inc., he still boasts a very respectable 13.4 average finish for his career. This year, even with four wins under his belt, Martin has a mediocre 17.4 average finishing position to show for his efforts.

Heck, if the veteran had made a habit of posting such numbers during his previous 27 years, he would probably have been dubbed with the name “Go or Blow” Martin… or some such moniker. Looking at these 2009 numbers alone might lead a newcomer to the sport to conclude that this Martin “Kid” needs to settle down and learn that if he takes care of the equipment, the equipment will take care of him.

Of course, what Martin is really experiencing is nothing more than an anomaly that may or may not continue. Drivers and fans would be hard-pressed to name any other driver that is more conscious of where he is on the racetrack, when it is time to race hard and when it is necessary to run conservatively to salvage the best finish that he can.

So far this season, Martin is blessed with a team that has come together nicely in the offseason to put an ultra-competitive ride underneath him. It’s not from lack of effort they’re stuck in this spot; instead, it’s because their driver has found himself bitten by the Racing Gods one too many times. Back-to-back engine failures at Fontana and Las Vegas left him stumbling out of the gate, forcing the Chase contender to simply struggle to stay above the Top-35 bubble early on. Then, a lap 6 wreck not of his making at Talladega hampered Martin’s efforts at recovery, taking him out of the race before crew chief Alan Gustafson ever had a chance to get comfortable atop the No. 5 pit box.

When you couple Martin’s three official DNFs with at least two other subpar outings – a 31st-place, 14-laps down finish at Atlanta after having a cut tire ruin his first polesitting effort in almost eight years, as well as a disastrous 38th-place finish at Daytona after contact with Kenseth that Martin took the blame for – he is having quite an un-Martin-like season.

It is somewhat ironic that the sport’s most prolific winner at present, who owns three Sprint Cup victories himself this season, is almost in a dead heat with Martin in the points chase. Kyle Busch, the young hot-shoe known for taking no quarter, nor giving any, is presently 10th in the driver standings and only two points ahead of the man who drives his former Hendrick Chevrolet. Second to Martin in wins so far in 2009, much like the man he’s chasing in that category Kyle Busch is struggling to not fall out of Chase contention himself.

Kyle Busch and Mark Martin… two drivers cut from the same cloth? Hardly… yet that’s what the stats sheet will tell you heading into Indianapolis.

Overall, it’s been a strange year for Martin, a race season certainly filled with its share of ups and downs for the wily veteran. But no matter what happens from here, this is a stretch that helps one to understand why Mark Martin does not care to even discuss the possibility of him finally winning a championship… for he knows that, in the end, it’s the Racing Gods who will have the final say.

And that’s my view from turn 5.