_Memorial Day Weekend brought us BBQs, warmth for most parts of the country and in the world of stock car racing? NASCAR history. The sport’s longest ever race, at 603 miles lived up to the hype, producing a summer’s worth of storylines that show every sign of simmering for weeks to come._
_What are they, and what can be carried forward into Kansas? For answers, let’s play a little Fact or Fiction as the world heads back to the reality of the workweek this Tuesday:_
*FACT: Rick Hendrick Is Releasing Mark Martin At The Right Time: November, 2011*
Just two years ago, NASCAR’s favorite runner-up finisher came within a whisker of winning a first title with Rick Hendrick. Scoring five victories, a career high seven poles and successfully revitalizing a downtrodden No. 5 program, it seemed like the veteran would finish his career driving that car – regardless of how much longer he wanted to stay in it.
But here we are, four months into 2011 and instead Martin and Hendrick look destined to end their partnership. A long-term extension was never signed, despite Martin’s change of heart that he’d consider running full-time beyond this season and all indications are Kasey Kahne will be sitting in the No. 5 seat, as planned come February 2012. On paper, of course it’s Martin who’s the one to blame for this predicament: he’s altered a decision about retirement seemingly every year for the past decade. But a closer look here reveals there’s more than meets the eye; instead, one of NASCAR’s savviest car owners may have realized that, at Martin’s age the chances of him remaining a championship contender are slim to none come 2012.
Why? Consider no one at age 53, Martin’s age come next year’s Daytona 500 has even won a race at the Cup level, much less contended for the Chase or earned a championship. And as much as Martin remains a mental master of mechanical setups, on the track he appears to be feeling his age more than ever. 14th in points, it’s how he’s struggled that’s raised some eyebrows: wrecking twice while causing at least two others, mistakes from Mr. Clean that we see oh, about next to never. Could it be that hand-eye coordination, regardless of Martin’s physical fitness regimen may be fading due to age?
Even Martin’s greatest asset, pushing the rest of the Hendrick shop to a higher level (especially as Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s shopmate) has been labeled all but irrelevant in 2011. Earnhardt has excelled in his new home, over in Jimmie Johnson’s shop while Jeff Gordon has struggled almost as badly as Martin and the No. 5. Whatever magic was there early in the partnership has faded, Lance McGrew merely a filler crew chief on top of the pit box and it’s now nearly a year-and-a-half since his driver as found Cup Series Victory Lane.
Certainly, the vast majority of both fans and the NASCAR garage would like to see Martin succeed. But history and Father Time tell us the odds are stacked against him… and that’s why it makes sense for Hendrick to pull the trigger now.
*FICTION: Earnhardt Ganassi Will Make The Chase*
Racing has a funny way of running in cycles: today’s rising superstar could be tomorrow’s driver holding a pink slip. Alas, such is the case for popular 2010 Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray, a man whose Chase bid all but ended with Charlotte’s blown engine Sunday night. Now 78 points outside 10th place, Jamie Mac has become one of the year’s big disappointments, almost certain to miss the Chase with just 14 races left in the regular season. Heck, even if the No. 1 car started winning a few it wouldn’t much matter; he’s 31 points outside the top-20 cutoff to be eligible for earning that “wild card.”
Across the way, Juan Pablo Montoya isn’t faring much better; 15th in points, with no top-10 finishes the last six weeks despite two pole positions since mid-March. What’s wrong with the No. 42? Simple: its driver needs to remember to balance aggression with the simple act of finishing races.
Should both these drivers miss, speculation will run wild as to what went wrong but my theory still rests on outside distractions. With owner Chip Ganassi focusing on an expanded IndyCar program, just a year removed from reaching the peak of NASCAR competition you could surmise the right resources aren’t being allocated in the right places. And sometimes, it’s just as simple as resting on your laurels during the offseason, getting just that little bit lazy… and paying the price.
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