News & Media

Happy Hour: Martin back in comfort zone at Texas

April 18, 2011, Dave Rodman,

FORT WORTH, Texas -- A year ago Mark Martin stood behind his Hendrick Motorsports hauler in the Texas Motor Speedway Sprint Cup garage in a rather prickly situation -- not of his own making -- trying to explain why, just as he'd said all along, that he would remain in Hendrick's No. 5 Chevrolet through the 2011 season.

Thursday, Martin faced a crowd of similar size, but more appropriately he was talking about getting himself back into Victory Lane for the first time since 2009 -- not what his plan for 2012 is.

"I feel like I know what we've got, which is a pretty doggone solid-speed race car."


"I think that our race team is really strong," Martin said. "I feel like we're doing some really great work in the garage sorting through our race cars and getting the race cars fast. We've been pretty darn fast the last three races."

But circumstances dialed Martin out last weekend at Martinsville, where he was 10th; at Fontana, where he was 20th; and especially at Bristol, where he managed a 12th-place with a car that was all torn up.

It leaves him 10th in the championship with only two top-10 finishes, as opposed to 17th a year ago despite having two top-fives. And according to his Hendrick teammate, five-time defending Cup champion Jimmie Johnson, a win could come as soon as Saturday night's Samsung Mobile 500.

"They're close [to winning a race]," Johnson said. "There are certain tracks that really are Mark Martin tracks and certain types of races -- when we get into a lot of restarts late in the race that's really not Mark's specialty.

"But we're getting into tracks where we'll have long runs [and] hot summer races where his fitness is gonna come into play."

"Where we are right now, we still have a little bit of room to improve on speed, but the communication is outstanding," Martin said. "I really think that it wouldn't take hardly anything for us [to win]. We haven't had a better finish than we ran in these last three races -- we've had a worse finish than we ran, but not a better.

"If we hit a spell where we get some better finishes than we run and we run as good as we're running right now, we're a top-five in that category. Hopefully, we can continue to build strength to where we can run there and not have to have a good day to get that."

Friday's 90-minute Happy Hour kind of backed that opinion. Martin's car was about the 28th vehicle on the race track, three minutes into the session, and his first, single lap was good for fifth on the chart.

Martin got shuffled back to ninth at the very end, trailing practice leader Kasey Kahne, whose pending move to Hendrick's 5 car for the 2012 season was the cause of Martin's discomfiting, impromptu news conference a year ago.

Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew switched to race runs on their fourth lap -- despite the race being scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday -- and after 55 laps Martin's average lap was 16th-best, behind best man Carl Edwards' stunning 29.68-second average -- though only over seven laps; Martin's best 10-lap average was 10th, behind category leader Matt Kenseth.

"I feel like I know what we've got, which is a pretty doggone solid-speed race car," Martin said. "Terrific communication and lots of opportunity -- we just have to hit on something that I really, really like in the race car and if we do that, where we are right now if we do that, we'll be strong, really strong."

That would particularly make Johnson, who nearly won at Fontana but has yet to win this season, pretty happy.

"What's cool for me is to watch Lance McGrew and that team really mature -- not necessarily mature but gain the confidence that they deserve," Johnson said. "They're all very talented guys and they've had some rough times over the years -- bumps in the road.

"And to have Mark's experience there to really steer them down the right road and to develop that team and develop the cars -- it's been a good fit there and that team is a lot stronger than it's ever been. I think we're getting into an area where Mark runs well, plus that team is coming along and I'm confident that they'll win this year."

McGrew won a Nationwide race with Martin in March 2008 at Las Vegas, but he agreed with Johnson that his entire team, which last year worked with Hendrick driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., was feeling the benefit of working with the veteran whose Cup career began in 1981.

"Mark's just a guy you have so much respect for," McGrew said early Friday. "His opinion, and what he thinks of the race team and the fact that he's caring and he's supportive, I think that's big because you go through a bad season and your race team gets beat down and it's nice to have a positive energy flow back into it.

"Someone like Mark, if he says 'man, these guys are on it,' they're on it -- and it's not subjective, to me, that's how it is. He's just a pleasure to work with and the fact that he has so much experience and he gets you where you need to be and steers you in the right direction as a group, is pretty phenomenal."

Martin won five races in 2009, his first season with Hendrick when the car was directed by crew chief Alan Gustafson. Six races into 2011 have been a pleasure for McGrew, he said.


Happy Hour Speeds
2.P. Menard 183.892 29.365
3.C. Edwards183.755 29.387
4.Ku. Busch 183.692 29.397
5.R. Smith 183.617 29.409
9.M. Martin183.045 29.501

"You learn something regardless -- I learn something every day -- but with Mark I think it's an attitude," McGrew said. "It's a focus that he brings to the hauler, to the couch in the lounge when we're sitting and talking, that's unlike anybody else you've ever worked with before.

"That's not a case of where it inspires you, but it just burns in you -- this is what we gotta get accomplished to be successful and this guy is telling us this is the direction we need to go and this is how hard we need to go -- because you're not going to go harder at it than he is."

Martin wouldn't argue.

"We're good [on attitude]," Martin said. "We finished poor in California because of the speed and we lost three spots at the end of Martinsville because of me -- not because of them or not because of the car. I would say that I didn't get on it just right in either of those occasions and we had fast race cars.

"We finished well, wrecked three times this year -- took wrecked race cars and finished well. I think this race team is strong and solid. They definitely have thick skin -- they went through what they went through the last couple years and they've got thick skin.

"Certainly, I am their cheerleader, but it's not really necessary. They don't need that, specifically. What we need is to have a day where when I go this way, it turns out to be the right way. The last three races, I've been really pleased with.

"I think we'll continue to get better, stronger as we learn what really is working for me with this tire and this nose and everything always changing. I'm still looking for that thing that sets me on fire that I really like [and] once we get onto that, then we'll be stronger every week."

They might even win.