With Thursday’s Gatorade Duel serving to set the field for the 52nd annual Daytona 500 this Sunday, only the front row was locked in from last Saturday’s qualifying. Mark Martin, at 51 years of age, became the oldest driver to win the pole for The Great American Race, with a speed of 191.188 mph. His 47.074-second lap just narrowly eclipsed that of teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. by .068 seconds – not unlike practice a day earlier, when Earnhardt ran a lap .016 seconds ahead of Martin.
No big surprise, really. After all, it was an edict from on high that the Nos. 5 and 88 Hendrick Chevrolets were to be built as close to identical as humanly possible for the Super Bowl of stock car racing. But while these two machines have been turning similar times on the track, that is where the similarities between car, driver, and team come to a grinding halt.
You would be hard-pressed to find a more conflicted story than that of the front row of the Daytona 500. Sure, the crews have always worked together, exchanged information, and are both run out of the same shop, but the experiences and results of these two cars in 2009 – as well as their corporate teammates – were a study in tragic contrasts.
When Martin arrived to drive the No. 5 Chevrolet for Hendrick Motorsports, it was a dream scenario for Alan Gustafson. He was provided the opportunity both of giving his racing hero his first Sprint Cup title and to restore the No. 5 car – the car he had commanded since Kyle Busch came along in 2005 – back to prominence within the monolith that is arguably the most powerful force in American motorsports.
While the 2009 season started off with a pair of blown engines at California and Las Vegas, it was quickly rectified in April when the team captured its first win at Phoenix in just their eighth race together. It was the first win for Mark in over three years, and gave both the confidence needed to boost their chemistry to the next level.
Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. was sent spinning by Casey Mears after leading 63 laps in the same event and relegated to a 31st-place finish. It was the latest in a series of poor-luck performances that would wind up costing crew chief Tony Eury Jr. his job.
As the ’09 season wore on, Martin turned back the hands of time and seemed to pick up where his career year of 1998 left off. The final tally showed five wins, a series-leading seven poles, and a runner-up points finish for the fifth time in his career, as well as providing the only real serious competition to Jimmie Johnson in the championship battle.
Across the shop, things weren’t so rosy in the No. 88 camp: No poles, no wins, a miserable pair of top fives and as many DNFs as top 10s.
To further compound and complicate matters, 2009 marked the end of a long collaboration between Earnhardt and Eury, who had served together while both came up through the Busch Series. Eury was car chief for 15 of Earnhardt’s 18 career victories, as well as crew chief for two more. But the lack of output for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver and the face of the sport finally bubbled over before the halfway point last year, with owner Rick Hendrick replacing Eury with Lance McGrew.
While there were flashes of brilliance from the new duo and signs of a resurgence the second half of last year, promising runs at Indianapolis and Kansas were felled by blown engines; then, a top five in the Chase was ruined by a David Reutimann bump at New Hampshire. Through it all, Earnhardt tried to maintain a positive attitude.
By October, he sounded like a man on the brink.
“I’m about to the end of my rope,” said the beleaguered Earnhardt at Charlotte that fall. “Yeah, I feel like I don’t have any control, you know, Rick Hendrick has put me in a great position, but I haven’t made the most of it, or for whatever reason we’re just not getting it done. I don’t know what to do.”
Contrast that with Martin lavishing praise on Gustafson at every opportunity, citing his relationship with his crew chief as perhaps the biggest highlight for him in 2009. As he told me during an interview at Michigan International Speedway last June, “I am just 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.”
When the specter was raised early last season that a crew chief swap between Eury Jr. and Gustafson was floated, Martin expressed that he would accept whatever Hendrick dictated – but would be incredibly disappointed if he and Gustafson were separated. When Martin decided to come back for another full-time season in 2010 (it was initially going to be another part-time schedule), it would be with Gustafson calling the shots atop the No. 5 war wagon.
With the successes and struggles of ’09 in the rear-view mirror, February in Daytona always brings about fresh hopes, renewal, and a clean state from which to start the season with. Changes abound between the two teams for 2010 – Martin a new paint scheme, Junior a beard.
Looking like a cross between Jim Morrison and Joaquin Phoenix – and maybe Waylon Jennings – Earnhardt showed up to Daytona sporting some scruff and the backwards hat that were his trademark during the more prosperous years of the early 2000s. Those successful early years stand in stark contrast to the vision of Earnhardt Jr. the last year and a half – nearly catatonic at times, a man walking a tightrope over the abyss.
“I can’t have another year like this,” Earnhardt said during the midst of his decline last season. “I can’t mentally. I can’t physically. I don’t want to put the people around me through this. When we were really, really struggling, everybody in the family was upset. Crying and carrying on. All the women were crying, the men we’re cussing. I’m serious.”
“We can’t put anybody through this stuff again. We’ve got to get this right.”
Fast forward to 2010, and while the expectations are for things to turn around with offseason moves and changes made within the structure of the Nos. 5 and 88 teams, Earnhardt Jr. is not blind to the possibility that things may not work as expected.
“We’ll do whatever we have to do at that point,” he commented at Daytona’s Media Day. “Rick will make the decisions he has to make, and we’ll move on or whatever. I think we’re out of excuses; if we can’t get it done, or if this package – me and Lance and everybody that is there right now can’t make it happen, you know, I don’t know if we can.”
Comments like that are bound to ignite rumors, leading many to believe that if things don’t turn around this year, Junior may be looking for a new ride even though he is signed at Hendrick Motorsports through 2012. But while Earnhardt Jr. may be expressing doubts as to whether or not HMS is the place for him, Martin is confident that his teammate will be able to throw off the shackles of mediocrity that have burned him for the past year and a half.
“His heart really, really, really is in it,” Martin said. “He’s incredibly driven to have the success, and his team is behind it. I think you’ll see a spectacular year for him.”
The veteran should know, as some key personnel, including his lead race engineer who was instrumental in seeing No. 5 come alive last season, have been tasked with getting the No. 88 back to where it is expected to run. With that, they built two cars as carbon copies of each other, and the results have paid dividends in short order.
“The challenge was we wanted one team with two cars,” Hendrick said following their front-row sweeping qualifying effort. “Then, they unloaded two cars that ran almost identical times. I know this is just one race, but no one here and no one outside of our company will know the effort that Alan and Lance put into this team and these two cars, and I’m really proud of them.”
While the mood surrounding Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team is understandably tense, things couldn’t be better for Martin and his No. 5 bunch. Starting off the season on the right foot, the 51-year-old’s first pole for the Daytona 500 is further validation that he made the right choice to return to full-time competition with the right team, after a trying stretch from 2001-06 saw Martin nearly at the end of his rope.
Watch an old race or dial up a YouTube clip of a Martin interview from that same time period; he looked 10 years older five years ago. The trademark buzz cut and steely demeanor are still present – think Clint Eastwood’s Gunnery Sergeant Thomas Highway in Heartbreak Ridge – but in a firesuit, as is the same self-described obsessive/compulsive desire to train, compete and to win. The only difference now is he is relaxed, happy, acting and functioning as somebody half his age.
While Earnhardt Jr. is closing in on 36 years old, not-so-Little E is trying to get to a place where his older teammate is mentally at 51, both professionally and personally. That won’t be easy. But with some offseason tinkering having already taken place, and a fresh docket of 36 races ahead of them, the groundwork has been laid for the Nos. 5 and 88 teams to become a cohesive unit in the mold of the Nos. 48 and 24 teams that are a stone’s throw away, just on the other side of the Hendrick complex.