Saturday night in the Arizona desert, the Sprint Cup Series may have gotten the boost it needed when Mark Martin broke his 97- race winless streak to become only the fourth driver over the age of 50 to win a Sprint Cup race. To say the win was popular might be the biggest understatement of the season. Victory lane was filled with an unusual number of drivers and officials wanting to congratulate Mark on his victory.
The sport has been under the microscope in recent months as the number of fully-funded race teams continue to dwindle and empty seats on race day becomes somewhat the norm. Those are problems that can be traced back to the hard economic times facing our country, but the sport has also been under attack this season for the lack of competitive racing that the COT seems to produce.
Every week it seems that the same handful of drivers are competing for the win and television coverage makes sure that you know that these are the only cars in the field. That’s why Martin’s win on Saturday was so huge for the sport. It provided a new face in victory lane and moved him up five spots to 13th in the points standings, just nine points from moving into the all-important top-12.
Martin’s path to victory lane on Saturday has been every bit as remarkable as the 157 laps that he led on Saturday. Once the cornerstone of Jack Roush Racing, he left Roush after the 2006 season but not before notching 35 wins and finishing second in the final point standings four different years
The 2007 season began with Martin driving part time for Ginn Racing that would later become part of Dale Earnhardt Inc. He continued in a part-time role for DEI in 2008, but announced during the season that he would move over to Hendrick Motorsports for a full-time ride this season. He would be taking over the #5 team, the first team that owner Rick Hendrick fielded in the sport and one that the owner wanted to return to its past glory.
He joined Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. at HMS with the knowledge that he would get the kind of equipment, personnel and support it would take to run for not only wins, but also for the title that had eluded him over his long and highly successful career. He immediately was tabbed as one of the favorites to run for the title this season but a slow start to the season had him struggling just to stay in the top 35.
It wasn’t a lack of speed as he was consistently near the top on qualifying day — the Phoenix pole was his third of the season. He experienced engine failures at two races that resulted in DNF’s. Engine failures are rare at HMS and it was only a matter of time before the problem was found. The results immediately began to show for Martin as he began a steady climb up through the point standings and suddenly started being around at the end of a race with a chance of winning.
That all sounds like the formula for not only making the Chase but also for winning the title. His teammates, Gordon and Johnson, sit one-two in the standings and it is no secret that Rick Hendrick’s teams share information with each other. He also has the benefit of crew chief Alan Gustafson who came up through the ranks at HMS which assures him of a solid background not only in how to set up a car but to also maximize the abilities of all the team members.
Mark’s success this season is a boon for the sport, as he has become somewhat of everyone’s second ‘favorite’ driver. A championship run by Martin during the final 10 races of the season would be a huge lift for the sport as everyone could have a driver they would like to see win. That would translate into more fans in the seats, higher TV ratings and more media exposure during the fall months when football takes over the country.
It’s only April and there are still seven months of racing before a champion is crowned, but this is one story that the sport needs to see play out. It could be that a Martin championship run would make people forget about all the problems the sport now has.
Race Preview — Event : Aaron’s 499. Track: Talladega Superspeedway (2.66-mile trioval, 33 degrees of banking). Date: April 26, 2 p.m. TV: Fox. Radio: MRN. Defending champion: Kyle Busch.