Jimmie Johnson or Mark Martin: Who's the Top Hendrick Driver in 2009?
In today's NASCAR, it appears that the younger generation of drivers have become the top guys on track. We have a 19-year-old, Joey Logano, who openly admits that he's a year ahead of schedule in his career, and there's many young faces just waiting for the opportunity to break into the sport.
At Hendrick Motorsports, it was Jeff Gordon who first took notice of a young driver waiting for an opportunity by the name of Jimmie Johnson. After watching and studying his talent, Gordon made the pitch to hire Johnson as the new young face of Hendrick.
Things quickly fell into place. Johnson ran some Nationwide races, then got the opportunity to debut in the Sprint Cup Series in 2001 at the Lowe's Motor Speedway. With Gordon and Hendrick as the listed owners, Johnson took to the track in the No. 48 Lowe's Power of Pride Chevrolet Monte Carlo.
In his first attempt at making a NASCAR Cup Series race, Johnson put his car solidly in the field, qualifying 15th. Unfortunately, his day ended after 146 laps due to a crash, giving him a 39th-place finish.
One year later, Johnson made the jump full-time to the Cup Series. From that point on, the Johnson Era had begun.
In the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson put his Lowe's Chevrolet on pole. He ran up front all afternoon, eventually finishing 15th.
As the season progressed, Johnson put himself not only in contention for the Rookie of the Year award, but found himself in the hunt for a championship. Johnson won his first race in his home state of California, then swept both races at Dover.
Eventually, late in the season, he became the first rookie ever to get the points lead as he would take the top spot heading into Talladega.
At the end of the season, Johnson would finish fifth in the standings, win the Rookie of the Year, and everyone took notice that Johnson would be a major player in the Cup Series for years to come.
Eight years and three championships later, Johnson is the face of the Sprint Cup Series. That gamble for Gordon and Hendrick paid off in full.
This season, it appears that role has changed within the Hendrick organization, but not by a driver everyone expected.
After the 2008 season, Hendrick driver Casey Mears announced he was leaving to join Richard Childress Racing. That left an opening in Hendrick's longest running car, the No. 5.
Unsure of who to put in the seat, Hendrick made an offer to a veteran of the sport, who spent two years on a reduced schedule.
Hendrick made an offer to a well respected and well liked driver named Mark Martin. A short time later, Martin made the announcement that he would be in the No. 5 car, and would be for an entire season.
It was almost as if Hendrick was reliving his signing of Johnson. You could see the excitement on Martin's face. He had a smile as big as the Tony the Tiger decal on his hood.
What happened was almost a repeat occurrence of when Hendrick signed Johnson. At the beginning of the year, just like Johnson in 2002, the team had its struggles.
Some crashes and mechanical failures put the team way back in the standings. But, as the season progressed, the team began to come around. Then, much like Johnson, everything came together, and Martin got his first win in over two years at Phoenix.
Then, the team got another victory at Darlington. A few weeks later, they claimed a third at Michigan. In mid-July, the No. 5 car dominated Chicagoland. Finally, just two weeks ago, Martin got his first win at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
In just one season, Martin has become the hottest driver in NASCAR. This poses an interesting question: Who is the top Hendrick driver this season, Johnson or Martin?
Statistically, both teammates are almost identical. Martin has five wins, while Johnson has four. Both drivers have 11 top-fives. Martin has 16 top-10s; Johnson has 17 of his own.
However, it seems this season that Johnson is not the hottest driver on the circuit. Despite his win last week, it was his first win in over a month. He entered the Chase without the momentum he had the previous two years.
Martin, however, came into the Chase with momentum on his side. Starting with New Hampshire, he had his team at the top of the points standings. First race in the Chase, Martin put his car in victory lane, and opened up his points lead.
The following week at Dover, Johnson took the win, but Martin was in the runner-up spot. His finish kept him in the points lead, despite the gap going from 35 points down to 10.
With the eight remaining races, both Johnson and Martin have won at all the tracks except for Homestead. It appears that it will come down to these two teammates in a battle for the title.
You have Johnson who is trying to put himself in a league of his own. A fourth-straight title would put him in a place among the greats of the sport that could be impossible to match.
But Martin, just winning his first title will be an accomplishment that everyone in the garage will be excited about. It would be up there with Dale Earnhardt winning the Daytona 500.
There is no question that Martin is one of, if not the most, respected driver in the garage. If he were to win the Sprint Cup title, everyone in NASCAR will be celebrating alongside the No. 5 team.
So who truly is the top Hendrick driver this season? Is it the defending champion Johnson? Is it the rejuvenated veteran Martin?
The debate can be argued for either of these drivers. That question could be answered when the Chase concludes at Homestead.
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