Mark Martin Can't Afford To Hide in the Wings Any Longer

Jordan McGrawContributor IJune 23, 2010

SONOMA, CA - JUNE 19:  Mark Martin, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, sits in the garage during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Toyota/Save Mart 350 at Infineon Raceway on June 19, 2010 in Sonoma, California.  (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Not everyone at Hendrick Motorsports can hog the limelight. It seems there’s only room for three on center stage.

There’s Jimmie Johnson, the four-time champ. He’s been both white hot and ice cold at times this season. He’s also just added “road course winner” to his list of accomplishments.

There’s Jeff Gordon, the other four time champ. He’s done everything this season except win, dominating events only to fall short. This past weekend, he performed his best impression of a bowling ball, finishing fifth and ticking off a few of his fellow drivers in the process.

Then of course, there’s NASCAR’s most popular driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. He only finished 11th last weekend at Sonoma, but does that really matter? From crazy comparisons to the usual “what’s wrong with him?” affair, Earnhardt moves the needle more than anyone else in the garage.

That covers all of the drivers at HMS, right?

Oh yeah, there’s that guy off-stage in the wings. If it weren’t for that bright green fire suit, he’d be almost unnoticeable, invisible even.

Invisible is a far cry from where he was at this point last year.

Mark Martin, 51, has hit a bit of a rough stretch in his sophomore year piloting the No. 5 Chevrolet for owner Rick Hendrick.

Last season, he was the talk of the town. The Batesville, Arkansas native was making his return to full-time stock car racing. After two years of competing only when he felt like it, Martin joined forces with NASCAR’s evil empire, Hendrick Motorsports, to make one final run at the championship which had eluded him his entire career.

Most importantly, unlike many older athletes who make one final attempt at glory, Martin was delivering. Sixteen races into the season, he had won three times. He was the Mark Martin of the 1990s, and would prove himself a legitimate force in NASCAR by winning two more times and finishing second in the Chase.

But now, in 2010, he is winless. In fact, he’s only led 42 laps this season. And the novelty of Martin, the man many of his peers consider to be the model of class, driving for the owner who has dominated the NASCAR landscape in recent years is wearing off.

Slowly, Mark Martin is sliding into anonymity.

Strictly comparing points between this year and last, things aren’t as bad as they seem. At this time last year, he sat 11th in points, 438 points behind leader Tony Stewart and only 12 points within the Chase cutoff.

This season he sits, well, 11th in points, 387 points behind leader Kevin Harvick and 72 points within the Chase. Technically, he’s a smidge better.

In reality, though, there’s something amiss in the No. 5 team’s camp. Its hard to believe that rumors of who will actually drive that ride next season aren’t bothering both driver and team.

The only time the GoDaddy Chevrolet has been in the news recently is when rumors surface about where Hendrick’s newest acquisition Kasey Kahne will drive next season.

As every potential destination becomes less likely, the best bet always seems to return to Kahne driving Martin’s car next season, even though his contract is through 2011. That, along with his team’s recent lack of performance, has to be getting under his skin.

Of course, there’s a reason he’s considered the classiest individual in the garage. He’d never admit something like that.

However, this weekend should offer up a good opportunity for Martin to put the frustrations of this season behind him.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup series is heading to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend, the site of Martin’s last win. He’ll be driving the car he took to a fourth place finish at Phoenix earlier this year.

The car will have a Carquest scheme on it instead of the usual bright green and orange of That’s probably a good thing; he wouldn’t have been the sponsor’s most popular driver at the track anyway. Go Daddy girl and IndyCar star Danica Patrick is making her return to stock cars in the Nationwide Series this weekend.

Mark Martin and his team are sitting in a precarious position. Sitting 11th in the standings with ten races to go until the Chase is nowhere near safe. Throw in the fact that his future with the team no longer seems set in stone, and it would seem a win or two in the coming weeks is looking like a must if he’s going to be in the No. 5 car next year.

While Martin has made a career out of flying under the radar, out of being a quiet guy, and out of coming from nowhere to score victories, it would seem that act won’t be good enough from here on out.

It’s time for him and his team to recapture their magic from last year.

It’s time to step on stage and into the spotlight.