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2011 NASCAR Preview: The Top 30 Driver Countdown
2011 Driver Countdown
No. 5 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet
Team: Hendrick Motorsports
Owner: Rick Hendrick
Crew Chief: Lance McGrew
Years with current team: 3
Under contract through: 2011
Best points finish: 2nd (1990, ’94, ’98, ’02, ’09)
Hometown: Batesville, Ark.
Born: January 9, 1959
Is the best driver in NASCAR without a title simply a lame duck in 2011? Mark Martin enters his third and final year at Hendrick Motorsports knowing the No. 5 Chevy will be passed to Kasey Kahne in 2012, and historically, that hasn’t been a good omen for drivers. But Martin has been here before — two past retirement announcements (2005-06) never fazed his Roush Racing team, despite knowing the end was near. Now, with what appears to be his last full-time effort finally at hand, Martin enters 2011 just as hungry as he was when he first strapped into a Cup car a full 30 years ago.
Car owner Rick Hendrick says that his commitment to Martin remains unchanged, asserting in a November press conference that the 52 year-old driver would get the same commitment Hendrick has towards the other three teams in his stable. “He’s not getting the short end of the stick,” the owner assured. “He’s going to get all the stick he wants.”
But is that verbal assessment accurate? After ending the season with momentum, reestablishing a special chemistry with head wrench Alan Gustafson that led to five wins and a runner-up points finish in 2009, Martin will start anew in 2011 after Hendrick made sweeping driver/crew chief changes to three of his four cars. Moving over to the former No. 88 stable, Martin gets crew chief Lance McGrew, who has just one Cup Series victory to his credit. In addition, the “new” No. 5 chassis he inherits scored just two top-10 finishes in the last 18 races of 2010, a far cry from the gains the “old” No. 5 team made in scoring two top 10s in its last three races alone.
To be fair, Martin gets reunited with some familiar faces from that ’09 campaign, crew members taken in an effort to kickstart Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s listless tenure at HMS. Most notable is engineer Chris Heroy, reassembling a perfect pairing of technical excellence with the most knowledgeable chassis driver in the sport. And he’ll have a new shopmate in four-time champion Jeff Gordon, who moves into the new “5/24” building on the Hendrick campus. Both veterans, the two should work well together and be able to share information successfully. Durability is also strong, as Hendrick engines caused zero mechanical DNFs for Martin in 2010.
Hendrick’s 10 championships do count for something, allowing a driver with an AARP card to gain funding in a business dominated by young guns. Martin will have sponsorship from CarQuest, Delphi and GoDaddy.com once again along with Quaker State. However, this car’s financial backing remains the worst of the four HMS entries, causing a troublesome hierarchy.
Martin’s best asset as a driver is his ability to win races while driving cleanly — so cleanly, in fact, he was criticized earlier in his career for not being aggressive enough. When push comes to shove, Martin usually doesn’t shove, a philosophy that eliminates controversy. But while that has earned him the respect of the garage, it also causes him to be run over from time to time.
Martin’s success became one-dimensional in 2010, as his best finishes came on flatter tracks like Martinsville, Loudon, Fontana and Phoenix. He’ll need to step up performance on the faster-banked ovals, remastering intermediates while navigating tricky restrictor plate waters.
Another thing to keep in mind: Hendrick has showered the veteran with distractions from the second his “full-time retirement” firmed up. After he signed Kahne in April 2010, his quest to find Kahne a ride led to a three-month inquisition as to whether Martin would step out of Hendrick a year early. Who knows what other bombshells may drop as that team prepares for 2012?
This year is likely Martin’s last, best shot to shed that title of best driver without a championship, but he’ll need all the pieces to come together early and often to make that happen. Otherwise, expect Hendrick to get Kahne on the brain all too quickly through a circus that ends with Martin a retirement sideshow.
What The Competition Is Saying
Thoughts from anonymous garage-area owners, crew chiefs and team members.
Few drivers command more respect than the grand old veteran. “He’s probably the greatest driver never to have won a championship,” says an admirer in the garage. “I don’t know if the shakeup at Hendrick is going to help Mark. Lance McGrew is a sharp guy, but it will depend on the chemistry.”
A crew chief says, “Mark may have more concern for his team than anybody in the sport. He’s one of those guys who knows how to save his equipment. I think that’s a talent most of the younger drivers are never going to have to learn.”
Another says, “No one is more determined. Mark’s that rare driver who races hard every lap but not in a way that ticks everybody else off. Everybody knows where they stand with him.”
Looking at Checkers: Dude loves Dover.
Pretty Solid Pick: Phoenix has been his best track, statistically, since the advent of the CoT.
Good Sleeper Pick: No wins at Pocono, but he’s a virtual lock for a top 10 twice a year.
Runs on Seven Cylinders: Hasn’t won in 51 starts at Daytona. Actually, he did in 2007, but NASCAR (for once) didn’t throw the rag.
Insider Tip: His unequaled chassis knowledge paired with his old engineer, should pay off on the big intermediates this year.
Top 5s: 7
Top 10s: 11
Laps Led: 148
Laps Completed: 10,646
Lead Lap Finishes: 24
Bonus Points: 65
Races Led: 12
Average Start: 14.9
Average Finish: 15.3
After First 26 Races: 15th
Final Points Standing: 13th
Driver Rating: 82.8 (16th)