With Chase hopes dead, Martin and Earnhardt Jr. must focus on 2011
But it's easier said than done.
Early this year, the mantra was “two cars, one team”, with the two teams in question being Mark Martin and Dale Earnhardt Jr. They were going to work together more this year and try to catch up to their more successful Hendrick Motorsports teammates: Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon, who have 8 titles between them.
So much for that plan.
This season has been another disaster for Dale Jr., who can’t seem to recapture the winning form he once had back in his DEI days. And after last year’s magnificent run, Mark Martin has floundered in 2010 and will now miss the Chase.
Atlanta’s race results were a microcosm of the whole season for Hendrick’s teams. Jimmie Johnson ran up front, led laps and finished 3rd. Jeff Gordon ran toward the front all night, but ended up 13th. Then there were Martin and Dale Jr., who finished 21st and 22nd. This is essentially the Hendrick pecking order.
There are a lot of things going against the lesser half of the Hendrick bill.
For starters, with these multi-car teams, someone has to be the low man on the totem pole … regardless of what the teams may try to spin. No one has ever successfully fielded four cars, and by that I mean that no four- or five-car team has ever seen all its drivers have good seasons.
There was talk this year about how some key players were moved from Martin’s team to Jr’s team, and that no doubt hurt Martin a little, but the truth is that neither team was really Chase-worthy. Even if Martin had squeezed into the Chase, the #5 team was nowhere near strong enough to compete with title favorites like Kevin Harvick, Johnson and Gordon.
So what to do as the #5 and #88 team look ahead to 2011? For Martin, this has to be a crushing defeat and somewhat disheartening, especially for a guy who is as competitive as Martin. Underneath that smile when he says he’s happy just to drive for Rick Hendrick, you know he wants to fight for that title.
In this offseason, Martin, Alan Gustafson and the rest of the #5 team need to do a lot of searching to figure out what broke in 2010 and fix it before next year (and maybe ask for some of those guys back from the #88 team). A lot of that discovery and experimentation can be done during the Chase races, when there’s nothing for them to lose even if they’re off. Just like the RCR teams got hot last fall and carried it over to 2010, Martin can try to get hot now and be hot when Daytona rolls around next year.
Jr. is a whole different ball of wax. As Kyle Busch once said, “It’s always the crew chief.” When you drive for Hendrick Motorsports, 22nd just won’t cut it. But since he’s the biggest name in the sport and is basically printing money for Hendrick, I don’t see him ever leaving. Lance McGrew is not scheduled to be replaced, so these guys need to get on the same page and develop a relationship like Jimmie has with Chad Knaus. If they truly understand each other and have the proper equipment under them, they can compete with the best. And in a worst-case scenario, where Jr. doesn’t start to get better, I say dump McGrew and bring Tony Eury Sr. up to Cup. All of Jr’s success in the Nationwide Series has come with Pops, and Pops got him a lot of Cup victories back in the day (remember when Jr. used to win a bunch? It’s been a while).
And last but not least, Jr. needs to forget the distractions and get his head straight. It has to be hard trying to live up to the pressure of his last name, but he has to somehow forget about all of that when he gets behind the wheel each week. If he does this and the team can give him better cars, eventually he should turn his fortunes around and return to competing with the better half at Hendrick.
I wouldn’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen, though.
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