Four-tire pit stop saddled veteran, who started from the pole
AVONDALE, Ariz. -- He was fastest in final practice, and fastest in qualifying. But when the racing began at Phoenix International Raceway, Mark Martin simply couldn’t overcome a lack of track position.
The pole sitter for Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at the 1-mile facility wasn’t a factor at the end, rolling home 21st as Carl Edwards snapped his 70-race winless skid. The class of the field all weekend, Martin led the first 49 laps but repeatedly found himself buried back in traffic, and the last time he just couldn’t drive himself out of it.
“We learned a few things, and we'll try to apply them next time,” the Michael Waltrip Racing driver said. “Obviously, it's a disappointing result for a great effort on the weekend. The car was pretty fast, but we had multiple problems.”
In the garage area, crew chief Rodney Childers was watching his No. 55 car being torn down, and beating himself up at the same time. The hurdles for Martin began early, when he was forced to pit for a loose wheel and found himself trapped a lap down after Dave Blaney hit the wall to bring out a caution. Martin received the free pass and led another 26 laps by staying out when the other leaders pitted, but his stint out front would prove only temporary.
After the second of two consecutive cautions brought out by Ryan Newman hitting the wall, Childers called for a four-tire stop -- and almost immediately second-guessed it over the radio. Martin’s car was a bullet in clean air, but like many others it struggled back in the pack. He restarted 16th, and was never a factor again.
“Made a good call and got back in the lead, and then made a bad call and got us back there in the mess,” Childers lamented. “Just couldn’t do anything. One bad call, and you’re stuck.”
Martin was third-fastest in opening practice Friday, and after claiming the pole was the quickest driver in both practices Saturday. He practiced his car for just 22 minutes in Saturday’s final session before parking it, telling Childers the vehicle was as good as it was going to be.
“We felt good about our car,” Childers said. “Normally you go into a practice, and you try this and try that. You think, that’s a little better, that’s a little worse. Mark and I talked about it, and he said, ‘No matter what you do, it’s going to be worse. Nothing you do we’re going to change to start the race, so what’s the point?’ Once we got into the race, it was good, but it was the same for everybody. Nobody could really move forward. The 2 car (of Brad Keselowski) was about it. You just needed to be the leader and restart on the front row and check out.”
Martin was able to do that early, but not after he was bogged down in traffic. Scott Miller, vice president for competition at MWR, said being atop the speed charts on the first two days of the weekend doesn’t always guarantee the same success in the race.
“Sometimes that translates, but you can’t count any chickens before they hatch,” he said. “You’ve seen that with competitors and have it not go as planned in the race. It’s better to be fast in practice and sit on the pole. We’ll take that every time. But to feel confident that will translate over into the race is a little bit of a stretch.”
Martin wasn’t the only MWR driver to struggle Sunday -- Martin Truex Jr. broke a rear-end gear in what Miller termed an isolated issue. In fairness, overcast and cooler conditions Sunday did make the track different from the hot, slick layout teams had prepared on for much of the weekend. In the garage area after the race, Childers said the No. 55 team had some work to do to make their car better in traffic.
But in the end, the crew chief always returned to a familiar refrain.
“Very seldom does the fastest car ever win,” Childers said. “You can look at it a lot of different ways, but the only reason we didn’t finish in the top five was because we took four tires when we should have taken two. That’s all there is to it. Nothing we can do about it now.”
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