NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2010 NASCAR Driver Review: Mark Martin

Mark Martin

2010 Ride: No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet
2010 Primary Sponsor: GoDaddy.com (21 races), CARQUEST (8 races), HendrickCars.com (5 races), Delphi (1 race), eBay Motors (1 race)
2010 Owner: Rick Hendrick
2010 Crew Chief: Alan Gustafson
2010 Stats: 36 starts, 0 wins, 7 top fives, 11 top 10s, 0 poles, 13th in points

High Point: Following back-to-back fourth-place finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas, putting Martin third in the standings, it looked very much as though the circuit’s oldest full-time driver would once again be challenging for that astoundingly elusive first title after coming up ever so short in 2009. With the strong partnership between Martin and young workhorse crew chief Alan Gustafson, plus another year of experience under both men’s belts, it was thought 2010 would be even better.

As we all know now, it didn’t work out that way after a horrid spring and summer. But after missing the Chase, Martin and the No. 5 team finally found the speed they had been missing this fall, and Mark drove the car to eight straight results of 14th or better, including four finishes inside the top eight.

The grizzled veteran scored his best run of the year at Martinsville under odd circumstances — after seemingly falling out of the race when hot brakes forced him into the wall halfway through, the No. 5 team repaired the car enough to shoot Martin through the field for a runner-up finish at the paperclip. In fact, he was so fast in a beat-up car if the race went a few more laps, he may have taken a victory.

Low Point: After yet another summer of fighting for his playoff life, at Richmond Martin finished 20th, handing the last Chase spot to Clint Bowyer on a silver platter. Accidents at Atlanta and Bristol followed by a string of uncharacteristically mediocre finishes throughout the summer had Martin fighting to make the playoff for the second year in a row; but this time, his position was more attributable less to bad luck at plate tracks and more to simply not running as well.

Many reasons were given for Martin’s precipitous drop in the standings compared to 2009, ranging from adjusting to the removal of the wing for the spoiler to the talk of top engineers being moved from the No. 5 to the No. 88 team. And there were the rumors of Kasey Kahne taking over the No. 5 early after signing with Rick Hendrick in April, despite Martin’s being locked into a contract through the 2011 season.

The noise and speculation grew so loud towards early retirement – a false theory – that perennial gentleman Martin finally reached a point where he snapped at a reporter or two. Did the distraction hurt the team’s performance? Difficult to say, but it probably didn’t help.

Summary: There isn’t a lot of difference in speed between champions and everyone else in auto racing; and no one understands that better than Mark Martin. After a season with five wins and battling for the title all the way to Homestead, Martin’s average finish only dropped from 13.2 to 15.3 — but that was enough to be the difference between second and 13th in the standings, missing the playoffs, and not scoring a victory all year long.

Many drivers would be happy to have such a season – after all, Martin finished ahead of Daytona and Indianapolis champion Jamie McMurray – but not a driver that routinely sets the bar high regardless of adversity. It wasn’t an easy year for Martin, both on and off the track.

Team Ranking: Third. Believe it or not, outside of champion Johnson, no Hendrick car visited victory lane in 2010. It could reasonably be said that either the team has lost just a little bit of its once-dominant edge, or that others have caught up to them, especially those driving for Gibbs and Childress. Even Johnson was by no means the lock he had been in previous years late in the season. Hendrick is without a doubt still the organization that needs to be knocked off, good enough to score 38 top fives between four drivers; but the competition isn’t laying over like they once were.

2011 Outlook: Martin never had too many complaints about crew chief Alan Gustafson, a man who once called his role with the team “a dream job.” Yet with Hendrick’s star t-shirt salesman driver still languishing mid-pack and the No. 5 and No. 24 teams slipping, Rick has decided it’s time for a shakeup. Martin’s new head wrench will be Lance McGrew, who hands over the most thankless job in auto racing to former No. 24 chief Steve Letarte, while Gustafson will move to the No. 24.

As he proved in Martinsville and late in the 2010 season, Martin still is a tireless workhorse who can still race with the best of them. Whether the new partnership with McGrew will improve the No. 5’s fortunes is up in the air, but given Martin’s strong finishes towards the end of this year and with the fuss over Kahne coming to a close, chances are Martin will be back in the hunt again in 2011.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: B+
2008 Grade: B+
2009 Grade: A
2010 Grade: B-

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