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CUP: Is Junior’s Rise Linked To Martin’s Fall?

There is a theory that this season’s rise of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the fall of teammate Mark Martin are related.

Earnhardt finished fourth at Daytona International Speedway last Saturday night and jumped two spots in the standings to 11th, while Martin finished 28th and dropped two spots to 13th.

I’m not sure that finish is really a microcosm of their season, however. While Junior deserves credit for his good run, Martin’s abysmal 28th was not a reflection of how he and his car performed – they were simply victims of somebody else’s pileup.

But in this sport little details like that don’t matter. Luck counts – good and bad – and the bottom line is how they finish and where they stand. If the Chase for the Sprint Cup started today, Junior would be in and Mark would be out.

If you look at the bigger picture, maybe there IS something to the reversal-of-fortunes theory. Boss Rick Hendrick, in an attempt to bolster Earnhardt’s sputtering performance, moved some key personnel from Martin’s team to Junior’s. It was explained as part of a “reorganization effort to try to help both teams.”

Never mind that Martin didn’t need any help. He won five races last year and finished a strong second to Jimmie Johnson in the point standings. What needed helping?

Now 18 races into the season – and more importantly, just eight races away from the Chase – Martin is winless and outside the top 12.

Also, there is continued conjecture about Mark’s future at Hendrick Motorsports. He has a contract to drive full-time next season but as long as teammate-in-waiting Kasey Kahne’s 2011 future remains murky, so will Mark’s.

Whether any or all of this has affected Martin’s performance is a matter of speculation. But a winning formula in racing requires a lot of factors fitting together, from mental to mechanical, and some wonder if that fragile structure may have been upset by front-office tinkering, however well-intentioned.

Last year three of Hendrick’s drivers had super seasons, with Johnson, Martin and Jeff Gordon finishing 1-2-3 in the standings. Junior was the odd man out.

This season Gordon and Johnson are solidly entrenched in second and third, and both are locks to make the Chase, while Junior has climbed up to 11th.

Martin, conversely, is going in the other direction. Could it be Mark’s turn to be the Unknown Teammate?

One thing’s for sure: If he continues to sink, Martin fans will blame the boss for daring to mess with success. Martin will never say anything publicly, of course, but you can bet he’s less than pleased with some of the decisions that have been made.

There’s still time for a happy ending. Martin is only a handful of points out of 12th, and the current occupant, winless Carl Edwards, has hardly been a powerhouse this season. In other words, Martin has plenty of time to make a move.

But if he doesn’t – if, after eight more races he remains out of the Chase while Earnhardt gets in – there’s going to be a lot of grumbling and second-guessing about a proud old warrior like Martin being used as a sacrifice fly.

Maybe that’s the price an owner pays for having too many superstars.

Larry Woody is a veteran, award-winning sports journalist. Woody began working at the Nashville Tennessean in the 1960s and took over the auto racing beat full time in the early 1970s. Larry can be reached at lwoody@racintoday.com.