NASCAR Race Weekend Central

2012 NASCAR Driver Review: Mark Martin

Mark Martin

2012 Ride: No. 55 Michael Waltrip Racing Toyota
2012 Primary Sponsor: Aaron’s Dream Machine
2012 Owners: Michael Waltrip, Robert Kauffman
2012 Crew Chief: Rodney Childers
2012 Stats: 24 starts; 0 wins, 4 top fives, 10 top 10s, 5 DNFs, 26th in points

High Point: When it comes to the 2012 season for Mark Martin, it is hard to choose just one high point. From four poles to coming within four laps of winning at Pocono, to leading 197 laps throughout the season (his most since 2009), to pacing several practice sessions, one can say the entire year was a high point for the Batesville, Ark. native. And keep in mind all these accomplishments came with an organization, Michael Waltrip Racing, that had a history of being a mid-pack team.

Coming off one of his most dismal seasons in his final year at Hendrick Motorsports, where a 22nd-place points finish was the worst of his “full-time” career, Martin appeared rejuvenated and ran competitively at age 53. It was an enviable situation for many, the year a consistent high point for a man who was rarely seen without a smile.

Low Point: Within a season that delivered mostly high points, there were some forgettable moments for Martin. Pocono Raceway has been a site of great fortune or heartbreak for the veteran, depending on your outlook. He has never won at the Tricky Triangle, but had finished second a total of six times leading into June’s Pocono 400.

Heading into turn 1 on the final restart, he muscled the No. 55 past his Toyota counterpart, Joey Logano, who had the dominant car that afternoon. The veteran steadily pulled away and seemed poised to finally take home his first victory at the Pennsylvania track until five laps to go, when the Aaron’s Dream Machine bobbled in turn 3. The slight miscue allowed Logano to reach Martin’s bumper and when the duo dove into turn 1, the youngster pulled the bump-and-run on his former mentor.

Now, the bump-and-run has been viewed by most in the sport as an acceptable means to overtake a competitor, and Martin said as much in his post-race press conference following that event. However, it is not a move that the sport’s elder statesman, who has a reputation for racing clean, readily supports. Everyone knows the story by now that it was Martin who dubbed Logano “the best thing since Sliced Bread” and endorsed him throughout his early career.

Receiving the chrome horn from his former protégé certainly had to be disappointing. “It’s not how I would have done it,” Martin did admit when pressed on the issue by reporters. From a man who never speaks ill of his competitors, that is about as telling as it gets regarding his feelings on what could have been a record-setting day: Martin, at 53 would have been the oldest driver ever to win a Sprint Cup event.

A second low point for the No. 55 team came a few months later, at Michigan in August. After leading 54 laps early in the event, Martin spun while running first as he tried to avoid the wrecking cars of Juan Pablo Montoya and Bobby Labonte ahead of him. His Toyota slid helplessly through the infield and into the end of pit wall, which ripped open the side of the car like a can opener, just behind the driver’s seat, no less. Fortunately, Martin walked away unscathed.

However, the crash ended what was almost certainly a top-five run for the team. More importantly, it left everyone in the sport with the chilling thought of what may have happened if the impact happened just a few more feet to the front of his Camry.

Summary: By all accounts, the 2012 season was successful for both team and driver. For Martin, though, his accomplishments weren’t just measured in stats. Returning to a part-time schedule, the driver was able to enjoy extra time with his family once again, sitting out some of the grind associated with NASCAR season. When he was at the racetrack, crew chief Rodney Childers and company almost always gave their driver a competitive car capable of running towards the front.

Finally, from a big-picture perspective, joining MWR gave Martin the opportunity to help a young organization reach the next level. Judging by the performance of teammates Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr., who both made the Chase, his leadership and experience helped make a big difference. What a turnaround for a team that last season struggled to simply run on the lead lap with former driver David Reutimann at the helm.

Team Ranking: Third of three. The combination of Martin, Michael Waltrip and Brian Vickers did a solid job behind the wheel of the No. 55 Toyota, propelling the team to a 15th-place finish in the owner standings. Still, they rank third behind the No. 15 and No. 56 cars who came home second and 11th, respectively, in the points.

Off-Track News: Sometimes technology and… well…”seasoned” people just don’t mix well. So one only imagine what Martin must have thought when he was approached about joining the “Twitterverse” by his team. Maybe he would be good for a random Tweet per month? Perhaps Martin would engage the help of a public relations representative, posting some carefully planned messages throughout the year just to keep his team and the masses happy? Well, that could not have been further from the truth.

Those who follow @MarkMartin know that he has embraced social media, answering fans’ questions, sharing workout routines and nutrition insights as well as posting his thoughts on the season itself. In fact, Martin even capitalized on the hacking of his account. After the perpetrator changed his Twitter handle to @EpicSwag, the new name was found on t-shirts and even above Martin’s door for a race, replacing the traditional signature.

By the end of the season, Waltrip and company could claim responsibility for bringing their driver back to the front of the field – and into the 21st century as well.

2013 Outlook: Many eyes will be focused on MWR waiting to see if 2012 was truly a breakout year for the organization or just a flash in the pan. In this sport, teams cannot rest on their laurels of past seasons as the competition is always finding ways to get better. With the crew remaining intact for 2013, though MWR should be able to build on the foundation that was formed this season. For the No. 55 team, that means reducing the number of DNFs and breaking into victory lane, both of which should be obtainable goals for that group.

2006 Frontstretch Grade: B+
2007 Grade: B+
2008 Grade: B+
2009 Grade: A
2010 Grade: B-
2011 Grade: C+
2012 Grade: B+

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