Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: Playing It Safe, Mark Martin’s Team Trades Victory for Conservative Top-5 Finish. Why?

Mark Martin must have thought somebody had sent him through some cruel time warp last weekend. In preparation for Saturday night’s Subway Fit Fresh 500k, Martin had qualified fourth, all while posting both the third and fastest laps in two of three practice sessions leading up to the race. With those types of numbers, it was clear that the U.S. Army Chevrolet was going to be a factor come race time (i.e., whenever the Yankees and Red Sox were done with their game), giving the veteran a chance to snag his first victory since the fall of 2005.

While Martin typically downplays his chances, he stated that his car was capable of winning the race; but he cautioned, however, that the team needed to guard against complacency, preventing a repeat of what happened a couple of years earlier at this very event.

Apparently, no one else got the memo.

In the 2006 spring race at the 1-mile triangular oval (which would make it not an oval, but I digress), Martin dominated a good portion of the race in his familiar No. 6 Roush Racing Ford, only to be undone during a late-race pit stop by none other than a loose lug nut. After restarting at the tail end of the lead lap, Martin raced his way back up to second place… when cars began to run out of fuel.

Unfortunately, his was one of them.

Martin ran so hard for so long, he did not have the opportunity to conserve the little bit of gas to make it to the end; but eventual winner Kevin Harvick did. So, instead of ending the night in victory lane… Martin wound up 11th in the final rundown.

This time around, things were supposed to be different. Martin again had a fast car; a wickedly fast machine, in fact. How fast was it? While picking off competitors, including leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. on lap 272, Martin was not even running the car at full throttle down the straightaways. One might ask, “Why was he running at only partial throttle while battling for the lead?”

The answer: to conserve fuel.

Following the night’s final caution on lap 230, the plan was to stretch it to the end on gas, barring any additional yellow flags. A veteran of over 20 years at the Cup level, Martin has learned a thing or two about saving a couple of laps’ worth of gas. In fact, by Mark’s estimation he had actually saved five by the time his car was halfway through the final fuel run. So, you can imagine his confusion, then, when the team relayed the bad news with less than 20 laps to go: they were probably going to have to stop.

One calculation had them running short with one lap to go; another had them short with three remaining. So, with 10 laps left, the decision was made to stop and get gas – and, for some reason, right-side tires. Meanwhile, Jimmie Johnson was able to putt around the track at a Hideo Fukuyama-esque pace, notching the first victory of the season for Hendrick Motorsports.

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Martin finished fifth.

Following the checkered flag, the veteran exited his racecar, frustration clearly evident after his chance to win evaporated in the form of Sunoco gasoline. With his trademarked buzz cut and bulging temporal veins, it was more than a little ironic on this night that Martin bears more than a passing resemblance to Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, for the 49-year-old suffered bitter disappointment yet again at the base of the Estrella Mountains.

Tossing his neck restraint in the car, Martin looked for clarification as to why he had been limping around at three-quarter throttle for the last 40 minutes as opposed to running wide open and building up a large enough advantage that he may have coaxed a different strategy out of the other teams. At the very least, the No. 8 could have been allowed to coast around the track safely for the final few circuits – as did eventual winner Johnson.

But circumstances forced DEI’s hand. Harvick, the driver who benefited from Martin’s misfortune in 2006, uses a similarly prepared corporate RCR/DEI engine as Martin, and ran out of fuel with eight laps remaining. He had saved some gas – not as much as the No. 8 car, but enough to raise the specter of doubt. Thus was the rationale for pitting from Martin’s crew. After all, two of the last three races have gone into overtime, forcing the dreaded green/white/checkered fiasco that often sees cars running out of fuel on the apron of the track, sputtering upon a restart while causing a chain reaction pileup behind them.

Clint Bowyer, however – another RCR/DEI engine partner – did manage to go the distance and wound up finishing in second place when all was said and done. So, fuel mileage under these engines proved to be all over the place; and in the right circumstances, it could be stretched to the end without a problem.

DEI has gotten off to a slow start this season, but has shown promise and more importantly, real speed the last few weeks. With that in mind, perhaps it might have been better to take the safe way out, get a top five and go into the off week on a high note, building momentum for the long stretch of racing that is to come.

One could make that argument, for sure; but this is a team that is not running for a championship, splitting time between a promising rookie driver and a proven veteran. Why not roll the dice and go for a win? That would do much more to foster morale than barring your throat and accepting a fifth-place finish.

And in the case of the No. 8 team, a fifth might as well have been 15th for them. It isn’t often you get a car that fast in the position to win, particularly for a team that has endured more than its share of drama during the last year or so. Never mind that winless streak that dates back to Richmond in June 2006; think of Martin’s itself, one that was just extended from Kansas in the fall of 2005.

There is a saying that goes, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with nothing left to lose.” Apparently, there is also nothing more dangerous than a man with a solar-powered calculator at a night race.

Following a moment of reflection and evaluation, Martin was his typical gracious self after the event. “I did my part to the best of my ability, they did their part to the best of their ability,” he said. “I back them up when they have a bad day, and they back me up when I drive it into the wall.” Veteran leadership and composure such as this may very well prove to strengthen the No. 8 team and DEI as a whole more so than a victory in the desert ever could have.

And in the midst of another manic episode of defeat being snatched from the jaws of victory, the example set by the driver will hopefully do well to soothe the wounds of a victory squandered by being overly conservative. A team that is in the process of rebuilding and reorganization following the departure of its namesake and several key members desperately needs to have some good to balance out the bad it has suffered over the last 16 months.

And, at the very least, their marquee driver has attempted to do that. Mark Martin is well on his way to becoming a legend in the sport for not only what he has accomplished, but for what he has had to endure. The performance displayed by Martin and the No. 8 DEI team this past weekend should serve well to quiet critics who assert that the 49-year-old may be past his prime, and that Dale Earnhardt Inc. has degenerated into little more than a museum to honor Dale Earnhardt Sr. through the sales of diecast cars, hats and Hershey bars.

Aric Almirola will be in the No. 8 car in two weeks at Talladega, with Martin returning the following weekend at Richmond International Raceway, the site of the No. 8 team’s last win nearly two years ago.

With any luck, the new No. 8 team can take a stroll down memory lane together in that one. But this time, in victory lane – where they should have been late Saturday night.

About the author

Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.

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