Mark Martin couldn't stop smiling. Everywhere he went in the days before the season-opening Daytona 500 -- walking to his motor coach in the infield, chatting with his crew in the garage, even talking to reporters in the media center -- he had a megawatt grin on his face. Normally the most pessimistic man in motor sports, the 50-year-old Martin was more upbeat than he had been in years. The reason? He was finally racing for Hendrick Motorsports, the most powerful team in NASCAR.
But five races into 2009, Martin's season is already on the brink. After finishing 16th in the Daytona 500, he blew an engine in Fontana (resulting in a 40th place finish), blew another one in Las Vegas (40th), and suffered a cut a tire in Atlanta that forced him into the garage for extensive repairs (31st). He did have a nice run last Sunday at Bristol (6th), but heading into Sunday's race at Martinsville, he's 31st in points and already in serious jeopardy of not making the Chase. This is certainly not how he envisioned the year unfolding when he decided to return to the Cup series fulltime after two years of part-time racing.
"There's five races under our belt and [we] finally [have] our first piece of forward momentum after Bristol," Martin says. "We have 20 races to go before the Chase starts ... We do have good speed. We are very far behind on one hand. On the other hand, if a number of other people have below-average or average luck and we have above-average luck going forward, certainly we have a shot at it."
When he hasn't been blowing engines, Martin has flashed top-five speed this season. He's won back-to-back poles for the first time since 1989, which proves time hasn't dulled his driving skills. Most former drivers will tell you that driving ability begins to diminish around age 40 -- the reflexes lose their sharpness and the hand-eye-foot coordination starts to slip -- but Martin is the exception to this rule. The grind of the 36-race schedule also tends to wear down the older drivers later in the season, but Martin is feeling so good that he said last week he hopes to return fulltime to Hendrick in 2010, which already appears to be a foregone conclusion.
So can Martin turn his season around? Lately his crew chief, Alan Gustafson, has been spending a lot of time with Steve Letarte, the crew chief for Jeff Gordon. Gordon has run as well as anyone in the series this season -- he leads the points standings -- and Gustafson has been leaning on Letarte for setup information. This should bear fruit this weekend in Martinsville. No driver has been better at the paper clip-shaped track over the last 15 years than Gordon, who has eight wins there. Martin last reached Victory Lane at Martinsville in 2000, but with Gordon's setup in his car, he should have an excellent shot at breaking that winless draught.
This much is certain: Hendrick will be the team to beat on Sunday. The Hendrick Chevys have won nine of the last 12 races at Martinsville, with Jimmie Johnson taking four of the last five checkered flags. The Hendrick organization always devotes great resources to performing well at Martinsville because it's a hallowed place to their owner. Back in October 2004, a plane owned by Hendrick Motorsports crashed en route to the rack, killing all nine on board, including Hendrick's son, brother and two nieces. "Martinsville will always be important to us," Jimmie Johnson told me last year. "Winning there is something that means as much to our entire organization as winning at any other track."
Who will win on Sunday? The pick here is Martin. Yes, it's not even April, but Martin, who's finished runner-up in the final standings four times in his 24-year career, is clearly in desperation mode. Expect him to be smartly aggressive on Sunday. More than anyone, he knows his season is slipping away.