NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2009 NASCAR Driver Review: Mark Martin

Mark Martin

2009 Ride: No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2009 Primary Sponsors: Kellogg’s, CARQUEST
2009 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2009 Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2009 Stats: 36 starts, 5 wins, 14 top fives, 21 top 10s, seven poles, second in points

High Point: If you ask Mark Martin, just showing up to work everyday and with his team on race day. As he told me back in June at Michigan International Speedway, on the Friday prior to his third win of the season: “I’m loving life right now, man… my Cup is running over. I can’t ever see doing something else, this is so great… I’m just… happy.”

At first a bit overwhelmed at the prospect of joining a team that featured the collective face of NASCAR with Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin had hoped at best to make a contribution – and maybe win a race in his first full-time season in three years. But those expectations were more than exceeded, as were those of most of the pundits in the media who gave him a wink-and-a-nod chance at making the Chase. Instead, when all was said and done 2009 was his best shot yet at winning that championship that has eluded him for the better part of 20 years.

In the process, each of Martin’s five victories – his highest total since 1998 – occurred under vastly different circumstances. A win at Phoenix exorcised his fuel and pit-road demons of 2006 and 2008 at that track, while a second win three races later at Darlington was a fitting tribute to the driver as old-school as the racetrack – one that remains both a fan favorite and a link to NASCAR’s glorious past and not-so-certain future. It was also a win that saw the No. 5 team go head-to-head with the No. 48 – driver versus driver, pit crew versus pit crew, with Martin pulling away at the end for his 37th career victory.

In contrast, the third win of the season at MIS saw the driver conserving enough fuel while keeping the leaders in sight, only to triumph on the last lap when the two cars in front of him ran out of gas. His fourth victory at Chicago was a Brock Lesnar-type beatdown, leading Martin to radio into crew chief Alan Gustafson early in the event, “This is easy, man.” His 40th career triumph at New Hampshire, earned after a late-race battle ruffled the feathers of Juan Pablo Montoya, would turn out to be the final win of 2009 – a season whose happening at all was a triumph in and of itself for Mark Martin.

Low Point: Four races into the 2009 season, Martin’s dream scenario had quickly degenerated into a nightmare. After sitting on the front row for the Daytona 500, his best start ever in The Great American Race, Martin had a car capable of winning the event mired back in 16th courtesy of an impromptu north Florida rainstorm.

Cars capable of contending the next two races at California and Las Vegas then beat only the exiting traffic, as engine failures plagued both the No. 5 and 88 machines of teammate Earnhardt Jr. While running fourth the next week in Atlanta, Martin would blow a rear tire at the fastest part of the racetrack, wiping out a racecar and wasting his first pole of the season. Heading to Bristol in March, what was supposed to be his happiest season ever had left him on the cusp of falling out of the Top 35 in points instead.

Summary: After having stepped away from full-time competition following the 2006 season, the events that followed at the 2007 Daytona 500 were likely confirmation for Martin on why he was stepping away from full-time competition. But later that same season, Martin drove the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolet at Darlington with Alan Gustafson atop the pit box, a partnership that led to two runner-up finishes in three starts.

Ever since then, Rick Hendrick had been leaning on Martin to come drive the No. 5 car for the greatest dynasty to date in NASCAR, with a return to full-time competition for another chance at wins – and possibly even that long overdue Sprint Cup title. It took the better part of a year to convince him, but once the two agreed to partner up it’s been exceeding expectations ever since.

So 2009 was a dream season for Martin, even though he would finish second in the points standings – again – for the fifth time in his storied career. He won five races and a series-leading seven pole positions, the latter matching a feat he accomplished some 20 years earlier. But the points result not withstanding, Martin put an emphasis this year on having fun, making friends, cultivating relationships and not obsessing over a title as he had in years past. The results were five wins, no blown temporal veins and a smile not seen on the 50-year-old driver’s face in recent memory.

That relaxed attitude proved the key in recovering from such an awful start, climbing from well outside the top 30 after Atlanta in March to a comfortable spot in the Chase following the Saturday night Richmond race in September. Entering the playoffs as a top seed, the Loudon win briefly brought hope a championship was just around the corner for the No. 5.

But as the Chase wore on, it was Johnson and the No. 48 that wore everyone out, with Martin’s chances to catch him permanently fading after a last-lap tap sent him upside down at Talladega – all while his rival scooted by up ahead. In the end, that simple mistake proved to be more than enough to hand Johnson the hardware, with the final deficit between the two a fairly large 141 points.

Team Ranking: Whether you are ranking the team against the rest of the field or internally at Hendrick Motorsports, there was only one car capable of besting the No. 5 group, and that was the No. 48, controlled by four-time consecutive Sprint Cup champion Johnson and Chad Knaus. It matters little to Martin, as he tersely radioed while be pressured by Johnson at Bristol in August, “…the No. 5 team is number one in my heart.” But as much as Martin credits his new team with reinvigorating his love for competing each weekend, it is the driver himself who has provided some sort of stabilizing force for what was the original Hendrick Motorsports entry.

In 2008, with Casey Mears at the controls, the No. 5 team finished 20th in points, with only one more top 10 than the they scored wins in 2009. Before that, it was Kyle Busch who brought the No. 5 team back to prominence, but it came with a cost, as his antics and comments were often the cause for tension within the organization. However, with Martin in the seat providing some long awaited stability and veteran leadership, the No. 5 has risen once again to become one of the elite teams in NASCAR.

2010 Outlook: With Hendrick having been the target for so many teams to take aim at the last few years, it will be a challenge for Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson to maintain the level of performance that they enjoyed over the competition in their first year together. That being said, this new combination produced five wins and a title run with precious little time and next to no testing to help build team chemistry and cohesion. That left them trying to figure out what Martin likes and needs in his racecars on the fly – and it worked.

Much of that credit – and prospects for future success – falls to Gustafson, who has been put in the position of being the team leader for his favorite driver as he was growing up. It’s a dream situation for him, who has said on more than one occasion that if he were to be able to bring Mark Martin a championship, there is nothing more professionally he could accomplish that would rival that feat.

So if he and the No. 5 team are able to apply what they’ve learned this year and carry it over into 2010, look out; they might just prove to be the biggest threat yet to the dominance of the No. 48. Expect their exceptional effort both on and off the track to continue, as the crew tries to get Martin that Sprint Cup championship just about everybody in motorsports would like to see him win.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: B+
2008 Grade: B+
2009 Grade: A

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