Race Weekend Central

What’s Vexing Vito?: ‘That’s Not Good’ Story of Mark Martin’s Season

With the issues that the No. 22 Penske team had with getting Kurt Busch’s car through inspection on Sunday morning – and apparently the past few weeks – some have suggested that the issue lies with Busch’s constant berating on the radio, and demoralization by way of despondent driver. But who in this dysfunctional relationship represents the chicken and the egg?

It was Busch after all whose squeaky wheel got the grease – and apparently unloaded some dead weight of its own after the first Richmond race this year. It was a rant that began last year at Charlotte and did let up; performance suffered until he finally lost it earlier this spring and who could blame him?

Remember, it was a number of niggling faults, shortcomings and things with the car that NASCAR didn’t like and warned the No. 33 team last year to be mindful of before they repo’ed Clint Bowyer‘s car following his win at New Hampshire in 2010. It was one that brought about a 150-point find, and essentially ended Bowyer’s Cup hopes just as they started.

NASCAR Series Director John Darby confirmed there would not be additional penalties for the No. 22 team – however having your car behind the pit wall while a B-52 passes overhead during the National Anthem is more likely to be the mark of a start-and-park team, not the typical Penske perfection and excellence of execution that has long been their hallmark.

Yeah, Kurt can be crass on the radio, but if recent results are reflected upon, apparently it’s needed – and in the long run produces tangible results.

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A few weeks ago, I wrote a column detailing how Tony Stewart, Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr. were going to falter and stumble into the Chase with no hopes of recovery. Three weeks later, these three drivers sit first, sixth and 11th respectively. Hey, one out of three in baseball gets you into the Hall of Fame, so save those angry spittle-stained letters Smoke fans and Junior Nation.

One thing that is refreshing is seeing two of the more popular and brutally honest drivers in the sport become relevant and title contenders again – and giving more than “track position is important/thank all the guys at the shop” sound bite after exiting their car. Stewart referenced getting rid of “dead weight” earlier in the week – many interpreting that to be related to a relationship matter – and Earnhardt Jr.’s explanation of too much camber gain and travel in the right front of the car which led to a couple of flat tires.

During playoff time when there are more eyes on the sport than normal, it’s always great to get a smart-assed remark from Stewart, or mechanical racecar jargon that the casual fantasy football fan will go slack-jawed listening to and have no idea regarding the relevance of what was just stated.

That being said, I am pleased to announce that MarkItZeroDude went to 2-1 this week on the strength of big games from Tom Brady and Jermichael Finley; that whole football fan/racecar guy works both ways too you know.

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Mark Martin’s season of discontent had another chapter added this Sunday at NHIS – site of his last victory in 2009. After finally getting a car under him capable of running in the top five and potentially challenging for the win, a right-front tire failure relegated him to one lap down in 21st. After pitting under green, Martin was still in the fight mentally, asking his spotter what position they were in. Upon finding out he was in 27th and down a lap, he shot back, “Lance, where are we, get me some info….” McGrew confirmed they were indeed a lap down, day ruined. Martin was deflated, uttering, “That’s not right.”

That phrase pretty much sums up 2011 and the final season for Martin in the No. 5 Hendrick Chevrolets he has piloted since returning to full-time competition in 2009. The pre-season switcharoo that saw Martin take over Earnhardt Jr.’s cars, and Jeff Gordon hop into the ones that revived Martin’s career two years prior, the 52-year old driver had so badly wanted to get the former No. 88 team into victory lane, and get back to some semblance of the season that just a couple years back had him winning five times and challenging for a championship.

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Kind of ironic that Denny Hamlin and the No. 11 team decided to switch over to TRD engines because of greater reliability and fuel economy, but then runs out of gas after being given the green light to race with 10 laps left. Kyle Busch may have came home 11th, but that almost-a-top-10 has him 40 points closer to the lead than Hamlin.

To put that into perspective points wise, that’s akin to a 126-point gap under last year’s points system – which is even worse this year since there is no graduated points decrease the further you finish down the running order. As has been played out time and time again in championship scenarios, you always dance with the one who brung you; that is of course unless you’re Chad Knaus and you change crews with a couple of races left and win the title.

Speaking of which, is the bickering and banter between Knaus and Jimmie Johnson the crack in the armor and harbinger of the end that their detractors (and competitors) have so longed, hoped and prayed for? Johnson’s “Dude, your cheerleading sucks/it’s not motivation, it’s actually kind of annoying” message was actually pretty funny Sunday – but also telling, and I don’t believe in a bad way. I think it’s more of a healthy marriage sign rather than “we need to talk.”

As counselor to the stars however, I would caution Johnson about getting too negative to the architect of his five-straight championships. Yes, Jimmie Johnson is a great driver – but as Hendrick Motorsports’ technical advantage has waned, strategy, not speed has won the first two Chase races and is going to play a bigger part than ever this year for the No. 48 to work themselves back into contention. He’s not out of it yet; but 29 points out two races in is about as far back as you’d want to be in this field for 2011.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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