Martin fights rumors, preps for Chase battle with Bowyer
Mark Martin insists that he will be behind the wheel of the NO. 5 next season
Martin could creep into the Chase with strong showings at the next five races
Marcos Ambrose, after his strong Infineon performance, could take Watkins Glen
1. If it was a movie, the tagline could easily read: "They pushed him too far." Despite insistences from Mark Martin that he'll be back in the No. 5 next season, the questions persist as if no one is paying attention. Rick Hendrick may have promised Kasey Kahne he'd be in the No. 5 beginning in 2012 and may have promised his new signee that he'd find him a ride for '11, but Martin has made it clear it won't be the No. 5. Still, he continues to be pressed about his future.
His reaction wasn't Gran Torino, but the 51-year-old did quasi-snap:
"What that means is that you made me look like I am about to get fired," Martin said. "That's very disrespectful, guys. That's what you all are doing."
But Martin has turned that perceived disrespect into fuel for a late turnaround. Slipping from 10th to 14th in the points standings after a six-race stretch in which he never finished better than 15th, he used an 11th at the Brickyard and a seventh-place finish at Pocono to close within 34 points of Clint Bowyer for the 12th and final spot for the Chase.
Now that Martin has worked himself back into contention, the question is: Can he really close the gap on Bowyer with five regular-season races remaining? Here's a look at how they stack up, and who has the edge, at Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond:
**Since Martin ran his first full Cup season during Ronald Reagan's first term, we'll only be using his performances with Rick Hendrick Motorsports as the basis of this "scientific" study.**
Watkins Glen: Unfortunately for Martin, we won't be figuring in his three consecutive victories, which he racked up at the height of Blossom in the early 1990s or his last top 10, which came five years ago. He was 23rd in his only run on the road course with RHM, while Bowyer posted a top-10 in last year's stop in the Empire State.
Michigan: Martin scored a victory in the '09 June race and qualified second in last year's second trip to Michigan, but he would wind up 31st and was 16th last month. Bowyer had two top-10s last season, tough he seemed lost there a month ago, qualifying 25th and finishing 22nd.
Bristol: This one belongs to Martin by a long shot. Last season he was sixth and second at Thunder Valley and won the pole both times, while Bowyer last cracked the top 10 two years ago.
Atlanta: Here's where thing get interesting. Neither driver has been all that remarkable on this track -- Martin made the top 5 last season, but he's also been 31st and 33rd in the No. 5, while Bowyer offsets four career top 10s in the ATL by taking 20th, 29th and 23rd in three of the last four races, though he was winning with 10 laps remaining in March before being hit by Jamie McMurray. With no real separation, crossing the finish line should be the biggest concern in this one.
Richmond: Fittingly this battle ends on a track where Bowyer and Martin have flourished. Bowyer's average finish of 10.2 is his best anywhere and the short track is site of one of his two career Cup wins, while Martin has two top 5s and two top-10 qualifying spots in three races.
The Verdict: Martin is by all accounts down this season, despite his recent surge, and he simply can't match Bowyer's speed. Then again, Martin impressed at Pocono by running up front all day. If this race for the final Chase does down to Atlanta and Richmond, I feel compelled to take Bowyer, what with the season RCR is having with a collective 37 top 10s. But I'd hate to count Martin out, we've seen what that gets you.
2. While we're on the subject of RCR, am I the only one who finds the reports that it may be adding a fourth team with Paul Menard somewhat alarming? My trepidation has nothing to do with Menard being that fourth driver; he's having a breakthrough season in the Cup series with three top 10s. My concerns are with RCR itself.
Let us not forget that a year ago Casey Mears was sent packing, and while it was largely because RCR couldn't secure sponsorship for Mears (which isn't an issue with Menard, who comes with a built-in deal with his family's home-improvement empire), this team was coming off a season in which it didn't win a race and failed to put one driver in the Chase.
There's a certain curiosity factor with Menard: What could he do if he's in top-level equipment, plus his sponsorship deal makes him an easy addition. But is that worth the risk of messing with a revival by RCR? It's clearly shown it's as strong as a three-car operation with Bowyer, Jeff Burton and Kevin Harvick, all in line to make the Chase, and adding a fourth driver could see this team wind up in the same convoluted state it found itself in last winter. In this economy, Childress should adhere to the simple notion that less is more.
3,955 -- Total number of Nationwide Series laps run through 21 races
1,362 -- Laps led by Kyle Busch, who sat out four races
9 -- Busch's N'wide wins this season. He has 28 wins over the last three years.
Marcos Ambrose. The Aussie will be looking to atone for his road-course frustrations after finishing third in 2008 and second last year in N.Y., not to mention his heart-breaking finish at Sonoma in June. Crew chief Frank Kerr will be taking the same car that Ambrose nearly won with at Infineon as they try to deliver his first Cup victory, which would certainly be a strong bargaining chip considering he's currently without a contract for next season.
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