Mark Martin's downfall a big question mark

August, 26, 2010

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A few weeks ago, I issued a proposal to Mark Martin as a way of saying I was wrong to write Kasey Kahne would drive the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports next season instead of him.

I proposed that since I couldn't eat crow, I would eat everything on Martin's diet regimen for the next four weeks.

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Mark Martin
Jason Smith/Getty ImagesMartin trails Clint Bowyer by 101 points for the final Chase spot.

It would be my race to the Chase, so to speak, to run in conjunction with his.

It never materialized because Martin wanted to put all of his focus on the Chase, which probably was a good thing for me. Those familiar with the 51-year-old's diet say I never would have made it anyway. They made eating crow sound pretty good.

Now it looks like neither of us would have made it. Martin is 101 points behind Clint Bowyer for the 12th and final spot for the Chase with two races remaining. In the two races since the proposal, Martin has finished 28th and 23rd.

Crew chief Alan Gustafson never was more frustrated than Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway, where Martin never was a factor.

"We sucked," he said. "That's about all you're going to get out of me -- we sucked. We're still in it, but not the way we've run. We've got to focus on getting better. I don't feel we have the speed to go over there and take it from those guys. We get in right now, we won't do much."

Martin was in no mood to talk Saturday about his midpack run at Bristol, offering three words after climbing out of his car: "I can't talk."

Gustafson and Martin came in with high expectations this season. After winning five races and finishing second in points to teammate Jimmie Johnson in 2009, they felt a championship was within reach.

Now they're just hoping for a top-10.

"I can't paint you a pretty picture," Gustafson said.

Exactly what went wrong nobody can say for sure. Some will argue team owner Rick Hendrick moving Martin's head engineer and mechanic to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s team triggered the downfall, but the No. 5 team still had access to those people and their information working out of the same shop.

Some will say the handling of the car changed just enough with new tire compounds, and switching from the wing to the spoiler was a factor.

Whatever it is, Martin's struggles show just how fragile success is in NASCAR's top series.

"This season is a shock," Gustafson said. "It's just the way the sport is. It switches really quickly. Obviously, we didn't stay on top of it. That's the way it goes. No one to blame but ourselves."

David Newton | email

ESPN Staff Writer



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