Martin takes backseat to Danica, Junior
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Mark Martin doesn't kid himself when it comes to his popularity versus that of fellow GoDaddy.com driver Danica Patrick, who made her stock-car debut in Saturday's ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway.
"I would say if she ran that lap in that car it would be a bigger story," said the 51-year-old Sprint Cup driver, pointing to the No. 5 Chevrolet he put on the pole for next Sunday's Daytona 500. "You see what I'm saying? You get it?"
And if the driver Martin bumped from the top spot, Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., ran that lap, it would have been an even bigger story.
That's just reality. No matter what Martin did on this sunny, windy afternoon, he was going to be somewhat overshadowed by the most popular female driver in the world and the most popular driver in NASCAR.
"Listen, I like it like that," Martin said with his ageless grin. "I've been real fortunate to have a lot of success in my career and still fly under the radar versus the amount of success I've had. That's cool. I'm a flying-under-the-radar kind of guy."
The radar is pointed at Patrick and Earnhardt. They had more people around their cars throughout the day than Auto Club Speedway has in the stands on race day.
OK, that's an exaggeration. But it puts into perspective where Martin ranks versus the other two.
That's all right with him and his team. They know come Feb. 14 they'll be competing for the biggest trophy in NASCAR other than the one given to the series champion, and Patrick will be watching on television.
"You might not see him on 'SportsCenter,' but if you walk through this garage and say, 'Name your top five drivers,' he's there," crew chief Alan Gustafson said. "The people that know, know."
That Martin and Earnhardt are on the front row could be scary for the rest of the garage. It could be an early sign that the changes made by Gustafson and Lance McGrew, Earnhardt's crew chief, to make the two teams work as one in the same building are coming together.
"Absolutely, without a doubt," McGrew said. "Now more than ever the 5-88 is one team with two cars. Get used to seeing that."
We were used to seeing Martin run this way. He won five races, seven poles and finished second in points to teammate Jimmie Johnson a year ago at an age when most drivers are retired.
Earnhardt? Uh, well, he suffered through the worst season of his career. He didn't win a race or a pole and finished 25th in points.
He struggled so badly that team owner Rick Hendrick made it his offseason goal to turn the team around. Getting Gustafson and McGrew to realign the shop to work more in conjunction, as Johnson and Jeff Gordon's team do in the adjacent building, was the starting point.
This is proof of success.
"When we went out [Friday] and he ran a .70 [-second lap] and we ran a .72, I looked at Alan and said, 'It is supposed to be like that, right?'" Martin said. "And he said, 'Yeah!' So, yes, we hope to both raise our games this year, the No. 5 and the No. 88."
Hendrick was as proud of Gustafson and McGrew as if they'd won the Daytona 500.
"It doesn't mean a whole lot to have two cars run the same speed," he said. "But confidence, that's what we need. We need a little boost and some good news there."
It's funny to hear Hendrick say one of his teams needs a boost. He's won the past four championships with Johnson and nine of the past 15. He swept the top three spots a year ago with Johnson, Martin and Gordon.
But in Earnhardt's case, building confidence was essential.
"We need a lot," he said. "This is nice. We just need to keep it going. You can never have enough good things happen to you."
Martin doesn't lack for confidence. Outside of Johnson, you can't find a driver with more.
What he doesn't have in 25 previous tries is a Daytona 500 victory. He'd like that as much as NASCAR wants Patrick and Earnhardt to succeed to bring in more fans and boost television ratings.
But instead of talking about what he hasn't done, Martin spent time talking about what the 5 and 88 can accomplish if this indeed is a precursor for the future.
It truly is a shame Martin doesn't get the attention Patrick and Earnhardt get. He's accomplished more in racing than the two have combined, and that probably won't ever change.
Becoming the oldest driver to win a pole shows just how good he is because, according to Earnhardt, "I had a little bit more motor than he did."
Before the Earnhardt conspiracy theories begin, it's only one horsepower at best, and he is one of the best on restrictor-plate tracks. Added Hendrick diplomatically, "They're all good."
And next Sunday, they'll be on the front row of the Daytona 500.
"And, by the way," Martin said, "it's nice.
"But I'm still under the radar compared to Danica. Even though we got the pole we're still under the radar."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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