Switch to spoiler throws Martin's team for a loop

SONOMA, Calif. (AP) — The spoiler is spoiling Mark Martin's season, and if his Hendrick Motorsports team can't get it figured out quickly, last season's title contender could be a spectator in this year's championship Chase.

This time last season Martin had three wins, three poles and had established himself as a legitimate threat to teammate Jimmie Johnson's championship reign. He fell short of winning the title — Johnson beat him by 141 points — but still won five races in a remarkable season.

Duplicating those numbers hasn't come easy this year. Martin heads into Sunday's race at Infineon Raceway winless and clinging to the 12th and final spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship field.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson puts the shortcomings squarely on himself and his failure to properly adjust when NASCAR switched from the wing to the spoiler back in March.

"I will be the first to admit I didn't do a good job with it," Gustafson said Friday. "We should have known better. We're paid to know better, but we missed it and didn't get it as quickly as we should."

In fairness to Gustafson and his No. 5 team, the switch to the spoiler has seemed to affect the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization. Often viewed as unflappable, the top team in NASCAR has suddenly become very vulnerable as Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing have closed the gap.

Johnson won three of the first five races — all with the wing — and since the switch to the spoiler, Hendrick cars have gone winless.

"Definitely, we've had to work harder on the spoiler," Hendrick said Friday. "It caught us a little by surprise. It upset the balance of our cars. We just have to work to get it fixed. You go through this."

But no one seems to be suffering as much as Martin's team, which could find itself outside the top 12 with a poor run Sunday.

The 51-year-old Martin remains upbeat, though, and didn't present as stormy a view of the situation as his crew chief seemed to have.

"We're not performing, but we are," he began. "We're better in execution than we were a year ago. We're taking what we have and we're finishing better with it than we did a year ago. Had we been doing as good a job last year, as we have this year, functioning in that respect, we wouldn't have been sweating quite as hard about making the Chase.

"Some of the changes to the cars (the spoiler) have actually affected the cars more than we realized on the surface. And our competition has either responded or it worked in their favor or both, and elevated them above us in the stack."

Gustafson is confident the No. 5 team will eventually adapt, and he was unwavering in that Martin will win races this year and will make the Chase. But he admitted there's a sense of urgency, as well as a less obvious issue of troubled team morale.

"When you are struggling with the car, a lot of things mentally follow," Gustafson said. "Frustration. Then you are frustrated that some of your energy is being focused on that, and you are not as productive as what you would have been. It compounds itself, and there ends up being two sides to this: the technical side of it and then there's the mental side of it."

The team took another hit last weekend at Michigan, where they went into the race as the defending winners but struggled most of Sunday and finished 16th.

"Michigan was a huge disappointment," Gustafson said. "You think you can go back, and even if we are off, we can still be good. So we go in and it's "OK, let's save the world and win the race," and when we weren't in position to do that, we mentally let that get to us."

A third potential problem on the season is quickly dismissed by Gustafson and Hendrick, despite the obvious issues it raises: When Hendrick streamlined during the offseason Martin's team with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team — a move that sent Gustafson's top engineer to Earnhardt's crew — did it adversely harm the No. 5?

"No, I don't think so," Hendrick said. "I think if you ask Alan and Mark, I don't think so. I really know that's a mystery to me, but they are gaining back. But they clearly, clearly were hurt more than anyone else in our organization by (the spoiler). It's a real surprise to me and a real surprise to them and the three of us have scratched our heads and said 'We don't understand it, but we are going to figure it out.' "