You could forgive Mark Martin for wondering why the heck he spent so much of the season struggling when he’s running so well now.
Martin, last year’s surprise runner-up in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings, hit a deep slump midway through the season, going 18 consecutive races without a single top-five finish — this from a guy who last year won five races and scored 14 top fives. But over the last month, one of two things has happened: Either Martin suddenly remembered how to drive, or crew chief Alan Gustafson found some new and much-needed speed in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.
Obviously, Martin hadn’t forgotten how to drive during his slump, so the answer must be in his cars. Whatever it is, the turnaround has been startling. In his last five races, Martin has two top-three finishes, three top sixes and no finish worse than 14th. He’s led more laps in the last five races than he had in the previous 29 races combined. Clearly, he and the team are hooked up again.
The timing couldn’t better.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup traveling circus heads to the Sonoran Desert and the tricky 1-mile Phoenix International Raceway oval, a place where last year Martin won his first race with Hendrick and ended a losing streak that stretched back to 2005, when Martin drove for Jack Roush.
In addition to his April 2009 victory from the pole at PIR, Martin also won here in 1993. And his average finish of 8.7 at Phoenix is his best at any oval track on the Cup schedule.
“Phoenix has been a good track for me since we first started racing there,” said Martin, who is 13th in points, best of any non-Chase driver. “I've had a lot of success at that track. Short track racing just works for me. I love it. It reminds me of the tracks I grew up racing on. You know, I almost won at Phoenix in 2008, then turned around and got my first win with Hendrick there last year. I'll never forget that night, so this track will always be special to me for that.”
Martin’s crew chief likes it, too.
“I don't know if I could pinpoint one track and say it's our best one overall, but if I had to Phoenix would be right up there,” said Gustafson. “We've just always been really good there. It helps that we have had drivers that love short track racing and really get after it on the track. Mark was amazing there last year, and winning that first race with him was something just incredible for this whole race team and the entire Hendrick Motorsports organization. In fact, we've never finished outside the top five since Mark got in our car. Knowing that, and the history we had at the track before Mark, it makes going back to Phoenix a lot of fun for this race team. I think we'll definitely be in the front and battling for the win on Sunday.”
And Gustafson is greatly relieved by the improved performance of the team.
“The highest we can finish in points is 13th, so we want to achieve that,” he said. “We really want to win a race before this year is over, too. Watching how this team has come together over the last eight races has really been a confidence booster for all of us. We've been trying new things and really working hard to improve our performance. I think that we've done that.
“Ending the season when you're improving yourself is a great motivator when you're getting ready to hit the track in Daytona (next season). We're working the kinks out now and hopefully when 2011 starts we're a step ahead of a lot of these other teams. I don't think we're championship contenders as we are right now at this moment, but we're getting there. We're leading laps and running up front and putting ourselves in the position to win at the end of these races. That's what you have to do week-in and week-out to fight for a championship.”
Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.