Martin playing catch-up after four races

3/22/2009 - NASCAR

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- Frost still was on the ground and the early-morning fog barely had lifted when Mark Martin arrived on pit road Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. He was anxious to get to work and shake off the cobwebs from a rough start that has his Sprint Cup team teetering on being out of the top 35 guaranteed a starting spot after Sunday's race.

Then the conversation turned to Saturday night's legends race featuring former NASCAR stars Cale Yarborough, Junior Johnson and Harry Gant.

"I just can't wait," Martin said with a big smile. "My sentimental favorite is probably Junior Johnson."

But he's 77, you know.

"I know, but that's what they say about Mark Martin and the championship," responded Martin, who at 50 is only a year or two younger than legendary competitors Terry Labonte, Sterling Marlin and Rusty Wallace. "Fifty years old against Jimmie Johnson? I don't think so, but, hell, you can't help but pull for him anyway."

A lot of people are pulling for Martin. He indeed was the sentimental favorite to win the title going into this season, kind of like Jack Nicklaus going into the final round of the 1986 Masters at the age of 46.

He still is the sentimental favorite.

He's also a long shot, ranked 35th in owner points and 34th in driver points four races into the season.

"I hadn't anticipated it," Martin said a few hours before winning his second pole in as many races.

Nobody did.

Nobody could.

In 28 years in NASCAR's premier series, Martin never has gotten off to such a bad start or been this far back in the points. He's also never had three consecutive races in which so much has gone wrong.

A blown engine at California and another at Las Vegas left him with two 40th-place finishes. A blown tire the next week at Atlanta left him 31st, leaving him 348 points out of first place and 189 out of the 12th and final spot for the Chase.

This wasn't how it was supposed to be when he left semi-retirement at Dale Earnhardt Inc. to run full-time for Hendrick Motorsports.

"It's a horrible run of luck," Martin said. "But we can't punch the reset button. Some things about punching the reset button would scare me. I don't know if we would run as good again.

"I told you guys that I was tougher mentally than I've ever been in my career, and now I'm being challenged."

Finishes aside, Martin has exceeded expectations. He's taken a car that finished 20th in points a year ago with Casey Mears and run well enough to be fourth or fifth in points without hiccups.

He was running ninth at California and fourth at Las Vegas when the engines let go. He was running fourth at Atlanta when the tire collapsed. He sat on the outside pole for the Daytona 500 and won the pole at Atlanta and now Bristol, with 18th at California his worst starting position.

If anybody can overcome this mess, it's Martin. Few over the past two decades have been more consistent, and even fewer have the mental toughness to bounce back.

"We should be considered a legitimate contender for the championship at Richmond [26th race] if we make the Chase," said Martin, who has been a runner-up for the title four times. "Yeah, it can be done. There's a lot of races to go and a lot of people will have three bad races.

"We can still have a bad race or two and still make it. I'm not going to worry about it."

All Martin is worried about is what he told everybody when he decided to run his first full season since 2006 at Roush Fenway Racing:


"I took this deal because I wanted to drive a car that could win," said Martin, whose last Cup win came in 2005. "I've had the best two years of my life racing and not worrying about points.

"Y'all are the ones that talked about championships. No time ever did it come out of my mouth."

If anybody can do it, Mark Martin can. … If his equipment holds up, he'll be there. There's no doubt in my mind. You can't even question whether he'll be there or not.

-- Greg Biffle

By "y'all," Martin was referring to the media. But the expectations thrust on him also came from teammates, fellow competitors -- even owner Rick Hendrick.

Those same people aren't counting Martin out just because of a rocky start, even though the odds are stacked against him based on Chase history.

"If anybody can do it, Mark Martin can," said Greg Biffle, Martin's former teammate at Roush. "We know he knows how to qualify -- and we know he can drive.

"If his equipment holds up, he'll be there. There's no doubt in my mind. You can't even question whether he'll be there or not."

Jeff Burton, also a former teammate at Roush, can't think of anybody he'd rather have behind the wheel in this situation.

"He's calm," said Burton, who won this race a year ago in a 1-2-3 finish for Richard Childress Racing. "He's got the right driving style. He's got everything you need to find your way back up in points.

"Mark is at a point in his life where he understands there is no need to panic. When you're running well you can overlook stuff, and Mark is smart enough to know that. He's the perfect guy to be in that situation."

Crew chief Alan Gustafson wouldn't want to be in this spot with a younger driver, and you can't blame him. Somebody with less experience might be in full panic mode.

"There are a lot of guys who may point fingers or overcompensate or pack up their stuff and go home," he said. "Mark's just, 'Hey, let's go to Bristol and go race.'"

That was Martin's attitude as he sat on the pit road wall early Friday morning. It was as if he had blinders on to all the negativity that has surrounded his start.

"I just don't let anybody talk me into feeling down on myself or feeling down about my race team," he said. "I don't hear that."

He shouldn't. He should hear all the accolades people give because he can rebound. He hasn't let anybody down. His equipment has, which is frustrating and encouraging for Gustafson.

It's frustrating because he and the team feel responsible. It's encouraging because he knows that when something doesn't go wrong, Martin will run stronger than anybody he's worked with in the No. 5, stronger than Kyle Busch when he finished seventh in points two years ago.

"He's such a good guy, such a good person to work for," Gustafson said. "Usually under these circumstances you go home and I'm like, 'Argggh, expletive!' for my own personal reasons. I go home now and I feel bad for him. He deserves better."

Don't feel sorry for Martin. He doesn't feel sorry for himself. He truly feels blessed to be driving for HMS, so much that he would consider driving another full season in 2010 when his deal calls for him to run a partial one.

And when the season is over he won't measure his success by how many races he's won or whether he's made the Chase.

"I'm not going to let people talk me into believing I haven't been a success up until this point, even where we're sitting now," Martin said. "In many ways, I have been a success. I've been able to mesh with these guys and inspire these guys. I've been able to inspire my teammates and make contributions to Hendrick Motorsports.

"That's what's important to be judged by."

Martin gets very high marks on that. But for those who don't see the behind-the-scenes contributions, what he does on the track will be the final grade.

That makes Martin the sentimental choice to post one of the greatest comebacks in Chase history, if not NASCAR history.

"It is going to happen," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "It is just when and how fast can they get it turned around."

But Martin isn't focused on the Chase. He's focused on a good finish, perhaps a win, at Bristol. Then he'll look ahead to Martinsville and doing well there.

"I could be anywhere in the world right now … on the beach, anywhere in the world," Martin said. "This is where I want to be."

He'll be here Sunday. He'll also be here Saturday night watching his sentimental favorite, Junior Johnson, defy odds.

"Stick him up against Rusty [Wallace] at this stage of the game," Martin said of the 52-year-old Wallace. "It might be a little bit like stacking me up against Jimmie Johnson at this stage in the game, but you never know. He might surprise you.

"I'm working real hard to try to surprise some folks myself."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.