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Martin looking to shrug off early-season misfortunes

Chris Symeon, Motorsports Editor

The Inside Line Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Five weeks ago, Mark Martin was the talk in NASCAR as the 50-year-old driver secured the outside pole position for the season-opening Daytona 500 in his first start for Hendrick Motorsports.

After hooking up with owner Rick Hendrick and teaming with superstars Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Martin was gearing up for perhaps his biggest championship campaign. In a preseason poll, the media picked Martin to finish eighth in the Sprint Cup Series point standings.

However, the early season has not been exactly what Martin and his No.5 Hendrick team had anticipated.

Martin finished 16th in the rain-shortened Daytona 500, but has placed outside the top-30 in the last three races. He suffered engine failure at California and Las Vegas and ended up with a pair of 40th-place finishes. Martin won the pole for last week's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta - his first pole victory since May 2001 at Richmond - and ran among the leaders for the first half of the race. But Martin cut his right-rear tire and spun, with the back end of his car smacking the wall on lap 216. He spent 10 laps behind the wall and ended up with a 31st-place run.

Mark Martin has placed outside the top-30 in his last three races.
"This kind of luck cannot continue; it just can't," Martin told his team on the radio after the incident at Atlanta.

Martin is now 35th in owner points. He is just nine points ahead of 36th-place and former teammate Aric Almirola from Earnhardt Ganassi Racing.

This weekend's Food City 500 at Bristol is the final race before the current car owner points determine the top-35 guaranteed starting positions. The top-35 guarantees for the first five races in 2009 have been determined by last year's final owner points.

With 22 races to go before the start of this year's "Chase for the Sprint Cup" championship, Martin has a lot of catching up to do if he wants to acquire a top-12 spot in points and make the "playoffs" for the fourth time in his career. He qualified for the Chase in each of the format's first three years (2004-06).

Martin has run a limited Sprint Cup schedule the past two seasons, sharing driving duties with Almirola in the No.8 Dale Earnhardt Inc. Chevrolet in 2008 and with Regan Smith and Almirola in the No.01 Ginn Racing/DEI car in 2007.

Last year, Martin was named driver of the No.5 Chevrolet for Hendrick, replacing Casey Mears, who moved over to Richard Childress Racing. Martin's crew chief, Alan Gustafson, helped Kyle Busch qualify twice for the "Chase" (2006 and '07) before Busch left Hendrick to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing.

As a 27-year veteran in the Cup Series, Martin has yet to win a championship but has finished runner-up in points four times, most recently in 2002 when he ended the season 38 markers behind champion Tony Stewart.

Martin is hoping his season's misfortunes will end at Bristol, where he won in 1993 and '98. He also has seven poles there, which is the most among active drivers. His No.5 team won at Bristol two years ago, with Busch taking the checkered flag for the first Car of Tomorrow race. Martin has not competed at the half-mile Tennessee track since the 2006 season when he drove the No.6 Ford for Roush Fenway Racing.

A disappointing finish at Bristol could possibly force Martin to qualify on speed next week at Martinsville and perhaps put him behind the eight ball as far as making the field for this year's Chase.

It's certainly not out of the realm of possibility for Martin to make a comeback, but Martin's team will have to step up to the plate even more to help him return to his once competitive form.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Chris Symeon at csymeon@sportsnetwork.com.

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