Race Weekend Central

Voice of Vito: No Respect – Media Making Mark Martin Odd Man Out at Hendrick

Ever since Kasey Kahne was named the heir apparent to Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 5 currently driven by Mark Martin, many in the motoring press are falling all over themselves, salivating over the idea of Kahne taking over the car a year early in 2011.

Mind you, Martin signed an extension in 2009 to drive full-time through the end of that 2011 season – even though HMS originally wanted him through 2012. But as it turns out, contracts have nothing on conspiracy theories these days.

To say Martin’s the Rodney Dangerfield of racing right now would be a bit contradictory. You would be hard-pressed to find one driver in the garage area that is as universally lauded, applauded and held in higher esteem than he. It is puzzling, then, when word came down that Kahne was the chosen successor to the No. 5 Chevrolet – announced nearly two years ahead of schedule, Formula 1-style – that virtually every pundit in the press was ready to roll Martin out the door before the season was even completed.

Rumors flew wildly in the first couple of days following last week’s announcement, in part because there was little offered by HMS or Martin himself as to what his future would hold past 2011. All car owner Rick Hendrick said last Wednesday was that Martin would indeed be in the No. 5 next year, and that it is his wish to remain there.

See also
Voice of Vito: Kasey Kahne to Hendrick Motorsports - But for Martin or Earnhardt?

“Mark has said he wants to drive the No. 5 car in 2011, and that’s the way we’re headed right now,” Hendrick said. “Mark made the decision that 2011 would be his last year. He came to me a year ago suggesting Kahne for the No. 5.”

At Texas Motor Speedway last weekend, when the subject was broached repeatedly, Martin seemed to tire of the naysaying, which as of late has become nothing less than obtuse.

“I don’t know why you had to ask that,” Martin said before Friday’s practice. “If I didn’t [want to be in the car for 2011], I wouldn’t be driving it. It’s not clear to me why you don’t understand.”

That’s actually pretty funny.

“These guys wanted me to drive it for 2012. I came here [in 2009] and it was a little bit of a stretch to do one full-time season. I gave them three. It’s been the gift of my career. One of my biggest concerns has been who was going to be the successor – I didn’t want to commit to [full-time in 2012] now, so I wanted to make sure Hendrick was set. And they are set in such an incredibly perfect scenario.”

Sounds pretty cut and dry to me, right?

For those who may remember the circumstances surrounding Martin’s last few seasons at Roush (prior to the Fenway) Racing, I can kind of understand why some would be a bit gun shy about the goings-on as Martin prepares to complete his tenure in the No. 5 – albeit not for over a year and a half. 2005 was supposed to be Martin’s last full season in the No. 6 Roush Fords that he had helped pioneer to prominence since the rebirth of his NASCAR career in 1988.

With team owner and friend Jack Roush in a bind and hurting for drivers, he was convinced to stay on for one more year until a replacement could be found for the No. 6 car. At no point during that time did Martin ever say he was retiring – he only wished to pull back from the strain of so many missed opportunities and a chance to share a relationship with his son that was as special as the bond that he shared with his late father, Julian Martin.

Yet when Martin made it known he wasn’t quite ready to dominate the Truck Series every weekend, as he had through 2006, the powers at be at Roush Racing and Ford seemed uninterested and unwilling to try and piece together a limited program for the cornerstone of their racing empire.

While Roush laments that he wasn’t as involved in the proceedings as he should have been, it set into motion the chain of events that saw Martin nearly win the Daytona 500 in 2007 with the remnants of the upstart MB2 organization, then help DEI through its post-Dale Earnhardt Jr. transition phase, ultimately landing at Hendrick Motorsports at the repeated pursuit and encouragement of Hendrick for Martin to give a full-time schedule one more shot.

The result was five wins, seven poles and his fifth runner-up points finish that, save for tumbling on his lid on the last lap at Talladega and an incident at Charlotte in the Chase, could have possibly won him a championship. Considering Martin was able to accomplish that in his first season with his fourth team in four years, why are many in the media so eager to see Martin ushered out after what had been one of the most compelling and inspiring stories of what was an admittedly difficult 2009?

For many who are new to the sport of auto racing, Martin comes from the old school, where your word actually means something. He has repeatedly expressed his appreciation for the second chance in a top-flight car that Hendrick has provided him at HMS, and the commitment the owner has showed the driver was not something that was lost on Kahne, either.

“Hendrick Motorsports has a commitment to Mark Martin that they want to fulfill and that’s important,” Kahne said upon announcing he was joining HMS in 2012. “It’s part of what attracts me to the team.”

Another aspect to what might play a role in the future of the No. 5 is the relationship between Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson. Martin was Gustafson’s childhood hero and when I spoke with him last June at Michigan International Speedway following a win in the LifeLock 400, Gustafson noted that, “I said it before, there is nothing I could do professionally that would top winning a championship with Mark.”

His sentiment and loyalty to his driver has not wavered nearly a year later.

“Mark is as competitive as ever,” Gustafson continued. “I don’t think Mark Martin gives up anything to anybody. I think it’s the other way around. Most of the guys are chasing him as far as driver ability. He is going to run [next year], he is going to be competitive and win races. That’s not going to change. He was a huge help in getting all this stuff done. If we could have Mark for 10 more years, we’d all do it. Mark is going to get to that point in his career, but for right now, the next two years, Mark is going to be standing on the gas.”

So why does everyone think he’s hitting the brakes? On Monday’s edition of NASCAR Now, Randy Lajoie made the comment that, “First Mark is going to retire, then he’s not going to retire – it’s a head game, I think he’s getting in his head!” To which Nicole Briscoe affirmed, “Head games….”

Wait, what? What does that even mean? Who’s playing head games? I must have rewound and watched that seven times the other night on my DVR, and still cannot make sense of it. It reminds me of Walt Kowalski’s insensitive and ingrate family in Gran Torino during the reading of his will. The mother and granddaughter are more concerned about scoring some jewelry, furniture and his ’72 Ford than they are in honoring the man’s service in Korea and last act of selflessness.

Sadly, that TV show’s not the only one confused. Sunday evening on Dave Despain’s Wind Tunnel, Kahne’s former car owner, Ray Evernham, was sure that Kahne would be in the No. 5 for 2011. Even on ESPN.com, a blog was salivating over the possibility of Martin taking a ride at Stewart-Haas Racing and letting Kahne get in the car a year early, with Budweiser coming to sponsor Martin.

This theory is so flawed and backwards, I don’t know where to even begin picking it apart.

It is highly unlikely that Budweiser will following Kahne to Hendrick in 2012, as that would jeopardize the exclusivity arrangement HMS has with Pepsi and drivers Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt – two drivers that are kind of a “big deal” in NASCAR circles (no pun intended). It was then suggested that Budweiser could follow Martin to SHR should he end up there in 2011.

Right. Because that would be a sponsorship alignment made in heaven: A beer company joining forces with a driver who used to have a drinking problem and has not had a drop in over 20 years. What a brilliant prediction. Perhaps some of these pundits would be best served sticking to their day job of sitting and picking the wrong Keno numbers for two hours while running up a bar tab at lunch.

While Hendrick’s cryptic “Mark wants to drive that car, and that’s where we are headed, right now” comment could have some believing that something will change in the months ahead to spark a new plan of action, Martin’s terse response to reporters Friday seemed to quell any notion of him doing anything other than serving a full season in the No. 5 for 2011.

The exchange reminded me of early last season, when rumblings began that Tony Eury Jr. and Alan Gustafson would be swapped as crew chiefs; Martin was asked if he would support such a decision. The answer was diplomatic but quite clear: he would have no say in such a matter and would do whatever Hendrick asked of him – but he would be really disappointed if he and Gustafson were split up.

Whatever the outcome, others in the media and those who might be fed some disinformation from other outlets need to listen to the man, because words mean things. He is neither retiring, nor looking to abandon driving past 2011, and might even have something else in order for 2012.

“I’m going to drive for a long time, and I might get involved in other capacities as well,” Martin said. “For the first time ever, I would consider an opportunity like Tony Stewart had. I don’t want to be an owner, but if I can be an owner like Tony Stewart, maybe I want it.”

Ahhh… now that is something to chew on.

“I’ve been in the sport long enough to know and have the confidence to know that really interesting opportunities come up,” Martin said. “And they will, and they’ll be fun and exciting, and I’ll explore driving and other things as well.”

My silly, wild-ass guess? Martin runs the entire 2011 season as he emphatically stated last weekend at Texas driving the No. 5, but also becomes a team owner with Hendrick backing for 2011. Kahne drives the new Martin-owned car for a year to help get things up and running while bringing current longtime crew chief Kenny Francis with him, immersing themselves in the HMS fold.

In 2012, Kahne gets in the No. 5, while Martin returns to drive the car he owns – much like Stewart does now – bringing Gustafson with him to compete on a limited 26-race basis.

Who would he help coach along those other 10 races? Well, there is this one driver who runs open-wheel that currently shares a sponsor with Martin… but maybe we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

One unsubstantiated rumor at a time, people.

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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