If Martin sticks to plan, Smith has big shoes to fill

If Mark Martin sticks to his plan to sit out the Bristol race in two weeks, poor Regan Smith will step into one of the biggest no-win situations in history, writes Terry Blount.

Updated: March 13, 2007, 4:49 PM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

If Mark Martin sticks to the script, Regan Smith is less than two weeks away from the toughest job in NASCAR.

Regan Smith (39)
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRERegan Smith could step into the car leading the points at Bristol. He would also be stepping into some unfair comparisons.

It's not every day that a Nextel Cup rookie could replace a guy who is on top of the standings. That's a realistic possibility for Smith.

Martin has to listen to his least-favorite question only one more week. Will he stay in the car or will he get out? The last lap of Sunday's race at Atlanta Motor Speedway is a career-changing moment for Martin.

Or is it?

His original 2007 schedule has him skipping the Nextel Cup race at Bristol the following weekend. No matter where he finishes in the Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta, Martin will have to answer questions about his intentions for Bristol.

He continues to insist he doesn't want to run a full Cup schedule, but he always leaves a little wriggle room just in case things change. Martin has three consecutive top-5s to start the year, making him the points leader.

Another top-5 finish this weekend probably means he would go to Bristol on top of the standings. It gives him a good excuse to change his mind, but Martin has plenty of reasons to justify stepping away.

First in the standings doesn't mean any more than 12th once the Chase starts if he hasn't won a race. And leading after four events is a long way from leading the standings in September.

Smith, 23, has a lot to live up to if he inherits a No. 01 Chevy that ranks No. 1 on the Cup list. It's an unfair comparison in any circumstance, but this situation in a real apples-and-oranges deal.

Bristol is the debut of the Car of Tomorrow, so Smith would race a completely different type of car from the one Martin drove to early-season success.

Job opening?
Wildest rumor of the week had Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage going to the IRL as chief operating officer.

Look for that to happen, right after he takes over as commissioner of the NHL. At least he thought about that option for about five minutes.

What next? Jack Roush buys a Camry as his family car?

Git 'er done in F1?
Time for Finland's Kimi Raikkonen to prove he's more than a party boy who drives fast. Raikkonen now has the ride of his dreams as the man who replaced Michael Schumacher at Ferrari.

He has the talent to win the Formula One championship this season, which starts Sunday in Australia. And Ferrari has been the best car in most of the preseason testing.

The rest is up to Raikkonen to prove he has the discipline to make the most of his many assets as a skilled racer on a top team.

Get her a win in IndyCar?
Raikkonen isn't the only open-wheel racer who needs to step up this year. Danica Patrick starts her third IndyCar season with a car capable of winning on one of the top teams in the league.

Patrick's move to Andretti Green Racing brings high expectations for Indy racing's winless superstar.

"I will say honestly that as the seasons go on, I feel more pressure to do well," Patrick said on a conference call last week. "It will come together. I'm in the right spot for it to come together. It's just a matter of time."

Qualifying counts, but not enough
For the first time in years, Nextel Cup qualifying actually has a little drama. High car counts each week caused some big names with big sponsors to pack up and go home without racing.

But where a driver qualifies still has little bearing on where he finishes.

Jimmie Johnson started 23rd Sunday before winning for the third consecutive time at Las Vegas. Matt Kenseth started 25th and won at California. Kevin Harvick won the Daytona 500 after starting 34th.

Seven Dodges qualified in the top 10 at Las Vegas, but none of those drivers finished in the top 10. Ryan Newman finished eighth in a Dodge Charger, but he started 39th.

For the 35 drivers with a guaranteed spot in the field, qualifying is wasted time they could use to practice in race trim.

It's time to give points for a pole winner so qualifying means something. Five points for winning the pole takes more work than earning five points for leading a lap under caution.

Toyota hurting
Qualifying definitely matters for Toyota, but not in a good way. Here are the cold, hard facts:

Toyota has attempted to put 22 cars in its first three Cup races. Six of those spots were guaranteed -- three for Dale Jarrett and three for Dave Blaney.

That left 16 spots to try to earn in three events. How many did Toyota get? Four -- two at Daytona (Michael Waltrip and David Reutimann), two at California (Brian Vickers and Reutimann) and none at Las Vegas.

Two Camry drivers -- Jeremy Mayfield and A.J. Allmendinger -- haven't qualified for a race yet.

If a tree falls in the forest …
Frenchman Sebastien Bourdais is favored to win an unprecedented fourth consecutive Champ Car title this season.

But what does it really mean? Some people will continue to question the magnitude of the accomplishment if it comes against only 16 or 17 other cars and a field of drivers nobody knows.

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. He can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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