Inconsistency, poor performances dogged drivers who missed Chase
Veteran Mark Martin struggled to keep up with top drivers like Jimmie Johnson
Several drivers saw their Chase prospects fade with inconsistent performances
Dale Earnhardt Jr. led just 68 laps this season and failed to make the Chase
It wasn't supposed to end this way for Mark Martin.
But then again, in a 28-year-career embodied by class, but underscored by disappointment, it should have come as no surprise. The 51-year-old entered this NASCAR season amid hope and expectation after winning five races and finishing second in the Sprint Cup standings -- for the fifth time -- after resuming his full-time career with powerful Hendrick Motorsports. His season-opening pole at the Daytona 500 was seen as the precursor to what might finally be a championship season. But then it came apart again. Not with an obvious culprit, such as the 46-point penalty he received in 1990 for an illegal carburetor spacer plate after winning at Richmond that gave Dale Earnhardt the title by 26 points. Or the adjustment Chevrolet, Pontiac and Dodge were allowed to their nose pieces late in the 2002 season, in which Tony Stewart edged Martin and his Ford by 38 points.
Dogged by performance issues and the inability to compete with drivers like teammate Jimmie Johnson, Joe Gibbs' Denny Hamlin and Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick as they established themselves as title contenders, Martin slowly faded from relevance by midseason, lost the 12th and final Chase for the Championship spot at Watkins Glen before the regular season finale at Richmond on Saturday, and missed the Chase cut by 155 points.
"I didn't really see this coming for the 5 car," Martin said. "I just know that it happens, that things change and ... the target is a moving target. It always has been and always will be. And we were hitting the bull's-eye last year. And we haven't found the bull's-eye this year. We'll continue to work until we do. But we just haven't found it."
Martin, self-critical in the breeziest of moods, was resigned to his fate even with a slim mathematical chance to make the Chase last weekend. With one more full season at Hendrick planned before he cedes the No. 5 Chevrolet to Kasey Kahne, he views his career in stark terms.
"I'm no champion," Martin said. "I haven't earned the right to be in that category or to stand beside those guys. But at the same time, I'm proud that I made them work for it and I saw them finish behind me many a time. And that I can be proud of."
Several drivers who failed to qualify for the playoffs can soothe their disappointment similarly. Four of them who finished in the top 20 in points but missed the Chase did something that playoff-bound Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer did not: win a race. But they all failed to master the art of consistency. Highs were too often blunted with a maddening penchant for the kind of disastrous finishes that are devastating in a points system designed to reward balanced performance in the first 26 races.
Jamie McMurray, who has never qualified for the Chase, is the embodiment of that fact this season. He began his second stint with owner Chip Ganassi by winning the sport's biggest race, the Daytona 500. The first victory in NASCAR's marquee event for both he and Ganassi once again proved to be no harbinger for long-term success. McMurray became the third straight driver to win the Daytona 500, then fail to qualify for the Chase, following Kenseth, (2009) and Ryan Newman (2008). That's not to say McMurray's season will be viewed as a failure, especially since he won the second-biggest race of the campaign, making Ganassi the first owner to win both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same season.
But that might have made the season ultimately more frustrating, despite a late-season push in which he finished sixth at Watkins Glen and third at Bristol but missed the Chase by 127 points in 14th position.
Compounding the consternation of a bizarre season at Earnhardt Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates was the failure of Juan Pablo Montoya to qualify for the Chase after finishing eighth in points last season. Then again, he won a race this year -- at Watkins Glen -- after not reaching Victory Lane in 2009.
"We made the Chase and everything [in 2009], but we were nowhere near as competitive as where we are at right now," Montoya said. "We have like four or five top-10s in a row. We've been there every week. We had a win. We're there. Last year, we played the point game. At the end of the day to make the Chase, you have to score the points. We didn't score the points this year, but we had the results.
"In a way it is frustrating because we didn't make the Chase, but we've done that already."
Montoya, who squabbled with crew chief Brian Pattie late in the season after some disputed pit calls, said the final 10 races can be a much-needed dry run for 2011.
"I think our pit crew still needs a little bit of work. I think sometimes the calls we make still need a little bit of work, but, it is all experience," he said. "Brian needs experience. I need experience and the pit crew also. Having these 10 races with no pressure whatsoever, I think is pretty good for the whole team."
Ryan Newman began the season insisting there was no reason he couldn't match his statistically boggling feat of completing 99.77 of the laps run in 2009 and again giving Stewart Haas Racing two drivers in the Chase in its sophomore season. Didn't happen. Though Newman passed Jeff Gordon late to win at Phoenix -- claiming his first win since 2008 -- he was ordinary most other weeks, with an average finish of 16th and managing just two top-5s and eight top-10s.
"I think we've had some strengths that we've expanded upon from last year," Newman said. "Our teamwork and our race cars, I feel, are better. We've had some really poor luck at some race tracks -- restrictor plates in general with three DNFs in those three races.
"I think we've made some gains, but obviously we have a few things to learn from."
David Reutimann (17th) and Michael Waltrip Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr. (20th) are also left to sort out seasons that began with promise but fell short of expectations. Reutimann finished fifth in the Daytona 500, with Truex Jr. sixth, but failed to finish off too many strong races, except in a victory at Chicago.
Hendrick Motorsports has equally large issues to address after half of its four-car fleet missed the playoffs. The team's preseason tinkering to attempt to stoke the struggling No. 88 program proved fruitless as Dale Earnhardt Jr. also missed the Chase despite being assigned Martin's lead engineer.
Martin peaked at sixth in points after producing fourth-, sixth- and fifth-place results consecutively, but he slowly faded out of Chase contention in the final weeks before the cutoff, succumbing to Clint Bowyer with four races left, eventually slumping to 15th. Martin has one season left at Hendrick Motorsports before turning over the No. 5 Chevrolet to another -- albeit 21-years-younger -- driver of unfulfilled championship promise.
Kahne began the season at Ford-driving Richard Petty Motorsports, the third incarnation of the Evernham Motorsports organization that lured him from Ford for a full-time Cup career with Dodge at age 24. Kahne wallowed as Ford struggled to compete until late in the season, but managed to finish second twice to rekindle his promise. In a career in which he has maintained his luster as a commodity despite not finishing better than 10th in points or winning or more than twice a season since 2006, Kahne landed a job at Hendrick for 2012 and an arranged ride at Red Bull Racing for next season as he waits out Martin in the No. 5.
Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, was hardly a threat at any point during the season, leading just 68 laps and producing two top-5s and six top-10s as he failed to qualify for the Chase for the second time in three seasons at Hendrick. His 19th-place points standing is a long drop in performance and expectation from the beginning of the season, when he started on the front row of the Daytona 500 with Martin and finished second. Now he and Martin are linked again in disappointment, and the question of whether the team's attempts to spur Earnhardt Jr.'s effort eventually impeded Martin.