Thirteenth in points is not where a driver wants to be at this point in the NASCAR Sprint Cup season. But it’s where Mark Martin finds himself right now, heading into Sunday’s season-ending Ford 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Last year at this time, Martin was second in points, a long shot to dethrone his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jimmie Johnson. That didn’t happen, of course. Johnson won his fourth consecutive championship, while Martin became the runner-up for the fifth time. Not that there’s any shame to that, mind you: The four drivers Martin has placed second to — the late Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Johnson — have 17 Sprint Cup championships among them.
Martin fully expected to make another title run this year, but struggled with the combination of a new rear spoiler and Goodyear’s tire combinations, which are quite bit different than those run in past years. Those variables and a prolonged summer slump caused him to miss the Chase for the Sprint Cup, the only time that’s happened when Martin has been driving full time.
At least, Martin can take some consolation in the fact that his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has run well lately: In his last eight starts, Martin has two top fives, four top 10s and an average finish of 8.75, with his worst run a 14th at Kansas Speedway.
Martin isn’t all the way back to the front yet, but he’s clearly working his way toward there. He’ll have one last shot at getting his first victory of the year on Sunday at Homestead, one of four active tracks where he hasn’t won a Cup race and one of only six where he hasn’t won a pole yet.
“My only goal this weekend is to win the race,” said Martin, a five-time race winner in 2009. “That's what I want to do for this race team. And it will make the offseason feel so much better.”
By his own admission, Martin said the 2010 season has been much more of a struggle than he anticipated.
“I don't think this season is what anyone expected — the media, the fans, anybody,” said Martin. “With the way 2009 went, I believe we all thought we'd be fighting for a championship this weekend in 2010. But that's not the way it worked. The summer months were brutal, and there was a time that we all got so frustrated and really didn't know what was going wrong. Then after New Hampshire in September, we just seemed to really figure it out.”
At least that’s given Martin, crew chief Alan Gustafson and the rest of the team some encouragement.
“We've gotten it back, and we're definitely on the right track,” said Martin. “We've had good consistent finishes, and we're running up front and leading laps again. That's the way this team should be performing. Alan is one of the smartest people I've ever met, and I've never doubted his abilities. He has a great team here, and this is exactly how we wanted to be finishing the season. It gives us a lot to look forward to in 2011.”
As for the final race of the season, Martin said it’s game on.
“It's going to be one heck of a race, that's for sure,” he said. “These fans are going to get their money's worth. There will be no lack of excitement and no lack of drama. It will be fun watching my teammate (Johnson) out there trying to win his fifth championship. I really hope for him and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports that he brings another one home.”
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.