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Sunday, February 8, 2009

Front row sitters Truex, Martin both have something to prove in 2009

Entering 2009, Martin Truex Jr.’s career is at an important crossroads.

Once viewed as a rising star after winning two Busch Series championships, he broke out in 2007 -- racking up one win, seven top-5s and 14 top-10s, and making the Chase. Unfortunately, 2008 did not work out so well for Truex, as amid the turmoil at DEI he could only muster three top-5s, none of which were a win, and did not make the Chase.

He enters 2009 with the newly merged Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing, and by taking the pole at Daytona Truex is trying to send a very clear message -- He intends to climb back in ‘09, not continue to slide into mediocrity.

Mark Martin also has a lot on his mind these days. He’s back full-time, for the last time he says, at what is arguably the best team in NASCAR -- Hendrick Motorsports. After several false starts at retirement, the four-time bridesmaid in the points standings decided he couldn’t resist taking one more stab at the Cup.

In a way, Martin has pressure from both sides. On one hand, many who believe he still has the ability to win a title have put high expectations on Martin for 2009. On the other hand, he has his detractors (including one NASCAR writer who says he's the most overrated of all time) who say he’s overhyped and he will likely fail once again this year to achieve his dream. So he has to live up the hype of his supporters, and prove his detractors wrong.

These two men will lead the field to the green flag in the Daytona 500 in a week, and they will be among the most determined in the field to take that checkered flag.

For Truex, it’s about getting the respect of the garage and showing him that he can run strong for the new EGR team. In a way he’s in a job audition all year, because he only is signed through 2009. Depending how things work out with EGR this year, a season full of solid performances and maybe some wins would likely make some higher-profile teams put Truex on their radar and try to court him for 2010 and beyond.

For Martin, it’s about one thing: Winning races and, hopefully, the Cup. There’s a reason Martin has become the Brett Favre / Michael Jordan of the Cup series by bluffing so many times on retirement: He REALLY wants to win the championship and loves to win races. I bet Martin still kicks himself when he looks back to 1990, the year a 46-point penalty for an illegal carburetor spacer cost him the title (Dale Earnhardt won it by 26 points.) If Mark had won that title, you wouldn’t see him on the track this year.

Nobody doubts Truex is talented, but last year’s dip in performance lowered his stock a little in the sport. This is the year he needs to bring it back up before signing a new deal … wherever he ends up. So Truex’s drive to succeed should be on overdrive, as it needs to be.

A truly talented racer (don‘t believe that writer; If anything, Mark is underrated), Mark has the respect of every person in the garage. He will run up front regularly, but to him it’s about proving he still has the goods to go for the title. The monkey on his back is enormous and he wants to throw it off before riding off into the sunset.

When they drive past the flag stand for the first time in the 500 next week, these two front row sitters will begin their missions. Time will tell whether those missions are achieved.


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