Mark Martin's Win at Phoenix Shifts the Pressure to Junior Next Week at 'Dega

Joe M.Correspondent IIApril 19, 2009

AVONDALE, AZ - APRIL 18: Mark Martin, driver of the #5 CARQUEST/Kellogg's Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series SUBWAY Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on April 18, 2009 in Avondale, AZ.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR)

Mark Martin's first win in nearly four years (97 races) last night in the Valley of the Sun, proved multiple things.

First, the 50-year-old still has it and simply isn't just racing around for sport like many of his other peers are, notably Sterling Marlin, who made a spot return in last night's race.

Additionally, it also raised immediate speculation of Martin's long-term plans beyond this season that his team owner, Rick Hendrick, has been inquiring.

As someone who honestly believed he'd seen the last of one of NASCAR's most likable and respected veteran drivers, it comes as a welcome sign.

Furthermore, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the garage area, much less on the circuit with an unkind thing to say about one of NASCAR's longest-tenured, most popular drivers.

Finally, it puts the pressure squarely on his team mate Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s shoulders to continue the winning that this stable began three weeks ago in Johnsonville, uh, I mean, Martinsville, Va.

That race saw Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's three-time defending Cup Series champion win his fifth Martinsville race in his last six visits to the track, including his forth overall.

The next week, his car owner and teammate, Jeff Gordon ended his personal 47-race winless drought win at Texas before Martin's dominating win from the pole last night.

Fortunately for Junior, the stars are perfectly aligned for him to do just that when NASCAR returns to Talladega, Ala., at a track where Junior has arguably seen his best success with five of his 18 career wins at this venue that he and his father ran so well.

It will be up to him to continue the three-week win streak that saw a different member of Hendrick Motorsports win a respective race.

In light of this, it should come as a welcome sign to be heading to Talladega for Earnhardt. Junior Nation should have its been chance yet to see their driver emerge victorious in Victory Lane.

The question is, will he be up to the challenge and will he be able to do it?

Should we already crown him champion of this race?

In the year of the drought-ender, it's been 29 races since Junior's last win at Michigan International Speedway last year on what many consider to be simple dumb luck as his car barely had enough gas to finish the race.

This kind of success has been typical of Johnson during his three-plus years of dominance, but it's that same success which has bypassed Earnhardt.

Prior to that win, his last win came at Richmond in 2006 which, if not for the Michigan win, Junior would be looking at a 108 race winless drought.

Other storylines to watch:

With Martin's victory, Kevin Harvick, the 2007 Daytona 500 Winner, now assumes the task of trying to end an 81-race winless skid.

(I am discounting drivers such as Michael Waltrip and Joe Nemechek, fun as they are, aren't serious contenders to win any races on a weekly basis).

Besides Harvick, who could be in line for a win?

Ryan Newman is the owner of a 42 race winless streak dating back to last year's Daytona 500; Denny Hamlin recently passed the one year mark a few weeks ago at Martinsville, thus currently holds a 38 race winless streak; and Jaime McMurray, who hasn't won since his .006 second win over Kyle Busch at the 2007 Pepsi 400 in Daytona.

Talladega, known for its beatin' and bangin' resitrictor plate racing is also known for "The Big One" generally a eight- to 10-car wreck sometime during a critical juncture during the race, which coincidentally happens to be one of the most anticipated on the circuit because of this in addition to its two hundred mile and hour high speeds and ability to draft with great success.

Talladega is also apt for young driver success as last year we saw rookie Regan Smith almost pick up his first career Cup win at the fall race, if not for a double yellow line passing penalty on the last lap.

Regardless of this fault, his fellow inexperienced team mates, Aric Amirola and Paul Menard were able to pick up some of their best career finishes with Menard finishing second to Tony Stewart, and Amirola 13th.

Look for Earnhardt Ganassi drivers, Martin Truex Jr. and Juan Pablo Montoya to have similar successful qualifying runs and finishes. If this weren't enough intrigue, Joe Nemechek, surprisingly won his ninth, and last career pole to date, in the spring race.

All of these factored with the drought-watching, are cause for some serious storyline potential going into next weekend's race.