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Michael Waltrip adds another piece to the puzzle, Mark Martin. But what's the big picture going to look like?

 Mark Martin: NASCAR's benchmark, for oh so many years, and one of the classiest drivers in the sport (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   FORT WORTH, Texas
   Consider Mark Martin.
   And consider Michael Waltrip's NASCAR operation.
   Can Mark Martin still get the job done?
   Can Mark Martin still win?
   Can Michael Waltrip get his teams in gear?

   After that brilliant coming out season with team owner Rick Hendrick in 2009 – five tour wins, 14 top-five finishes, and runner-up in the championship battle to teammate Jimmie Johnson – Martin has been on something of a downhill slide.
   And Waltrip, who debuted as a Sprint Cup team owner in 2007, has never really caught traction, despite plenty of sponsorship and plenty of technological support from Toyota. Can newcomers Clint Bowyer, Martin and Scott Miller get things turned around?
   Martin didn't make the playoffs the last two seasons, which were capped by two more Jimmie Johnson championships. And this season Martin has almost seemed an afterthought, when studying the Hendrick operation: he's led very few laps, he's only logged two top-five finishes, his best finish was the gas-mileage-gamble second at Dover in May, he's averaging less than an 18th-place finish overall, and he's averaging just 21st-place finishes in the playoffs.


Michael Waltrip: Five years as a team owner....so where's the beef? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Over the hill?
   Martin has been a NASCAR tour stalwart since his dramatic series debut in 1981 as a 22-year-old hotshot full-of-himself racer from Arkansas.
   Martin over the years has become the sport's benchmark in so many ways, as much for his celebrated 'code of honor' as his yeoman's work at the wheel in winning 40 Cup races and 51 Cup poles. Over his 827 Cup runs, Martin has averaged top-five finishes an astonishing 33 percent of the time: Every third start, he's a top-five. Since 1981.
   Amazing isn't enough of a word to describe Mark Martin.
   However this season Martin has seemed off his game too many times.
   Clearly the Hendrick equipment is there – Johnson and Jeff Gordon were in championship contention until just a few weeks ago. Even Dale Earnhardt Jr. made the chase (though he hasn't done much with the opportunity).
   And it also seems that Martin has been making mistakes out on the track more frequently than usual.
   This is the stage setting for Martin, who turns 53 before next year's season-opening Daytona 500.
   So what to expect from Martin in his new job driving for Toyota's Michael Waltrip?


    Mark Martin (R) and soon-to-be new teammate Clint Bowyer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The Waltrip operation itself has been suspect for years.
   The boss may be a wizard at sponsorship promotions, and a giddy TV analyst, and certainly one of the sport's most upfront promoters of the sport itself.
   But out there on the race track, it's been a much different story.
   The first season, 2007, was a certifiable disaster, embarrassing, to say the least.
   Things have improved, but still the performance Sunday afternoon simply hasn't been there.
   Even the great Dale Jarrett was a bust in the cars.
   Martin Truex Jr. was expected to bring some punch to the operation, but there's been little progress there either. This year's best is a second at Bristol; he's averaging 18th-place finishes, and he's 24th in the points.
    David Reutimann showed good signs, winning twice, but now he's been abruptly bounced from the ride, clearly by the sponsor, who says he's been looking 'for the next chapter.' Reutimann has led only eight laps this year, finished top-10 just twice, a best of second at Kentucky, a 23rd-place average finish, 28th in the standings.
   For five years, to be blunt, the operation has been erratic at best.
   Toyota officials have hung in there, though; the Waltrip gambit, remember, was part of the company's NASCAR game plan, to give opportunities.
   But heading into Year Six there are still major questions here, many on the technical side. Despite hiring top-notch people, even some from Formula 1, the dynamic really hasn't changed.
   That's the stage setting Martin is stepping onto.


   Not a great season for Mark Martin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  After working for 19 years with Ford's top man, Jack Roush, and coming close several times to that elusive national championship, and now after three seasons with Rick Hendrick, Martin is stepping into a new arena.
   And Waltrip himself has been changing other key things too:
   -- Hiring veteran Scott Miller away from Chevy's Richard Childress, to be the new competition director;
   -- Hiring Clint Bowyer away from Childress as a new driver;
   -- Now hiring Martin as another new driver.
   Waltrip has also been involved in some behind-the-scenes technological changes too, which Toyota engineers hope work out, particularly on the chassis front. However there have been no noticeable improvements there yet.
   And Toyota's engine program for the Cup series hasn't been that strong this year, all the way around. Even the Joe Gibbs teams, Toyota's benchmark, haven't been setting the woods ablaze. Toyota says it's got the oldest engine design in the Sprint Cup series and has asked NASCAR for some new parts; but there is little optimism NASCAR will grant them.

   Mark Martin (L) and Jack Roush, the man who helped make Martin a powerhouse in this sport (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Mark Martin's own take on all this?
   Simply, this was the best offer on the table.
   The long-expected move to Tony Stewart's Chevy team, as part-time teammate and Cup mentor for Danica Patrick never materialized. "That was never close," Martin says.
   "Tony and I put our hearts into that….but that was never close.
   "And I don't really want to talk about the other possibilities…..
   "This was the one that got me most excited. And it was something I never saw coming."
   In fact the Martin-to-Waltrip deal came down only within the last three weeks, signed Wednesday, for two years, 30 Cup races for Martin in 2012 and in 2013.
   When Kasey Kahne announced well over a year ago that he would be moving to Hendrick's in 2012 to take Martin's ride, and bringing crew chief Kenny Francis and the crew, Martin insisted he had no worries about getting a deal for himself for 2012.
   However nothing really came up for Martin.
   Until Waltrip texted Martin with the bid.
   "The more I thought about it, the more excited I got," Martin says.
   "When you look at all the opportunities they are going to give me….to be involved in multiple things, all of which are fun, I couldn't ask for any more.
    "I feel very blessed."


Mark Martin, with Rick Hendrick, in that great 2009 season (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   As recently as at Talladega three weeks ago Martin had little going his way for 2012.
   "It didn't look good for a while," Martin concedes. "I wasn't going to worry about it….but it didn't look good.
   "There was no traction in the Truck garage, and didn't get any traction in the Nationwide garage…though we worked some sponsorships deals there.
   "As it went on, it became clear the traction would come in the Cup series, because multiple things were finally starting to materialize, even though it was late in the year.
   "I knew I would find something for the next chapter in my life would be really fun and exciting….no matter what it was. Even if it was only hanging out with Mr. Hendrick and going to some races and watching; that would be fun and exciting too…but not as exciting as this new chapter will be."
    First Ford, then Chevrolet, now Toyota.
   "I'm glad this deal came together late…..I was always saying I'd hoped to have something to announce in November or December, and it's November," Martin said.
   "There just has not been much movement (by sponsors and potential sponsors) in the sport; some sponsors have still not made decisions about what they're going to do.
   "And there are a lot of cutbacks going on."
   Roush and Childress are both cutting back to three teams, and Red Bull is cutting both of its teams, among the more notable cuts.
   "So I feel really lucky to have this opportunity," Martin says.
   Technologically Toyota is clearly behind Ford and Chevrolet. And Michael Waltrip Racing is clearly behind Rick Hendrick, Jack Roush and Richard Childress and Joe Gibbs.
    That, Martin says, is something of a plus for him.
    "That's not a negative…that's an exciting challenge…to hopefully be part of the solution, the growth," Martin says.
   "I'm excited about that. Sometimes slipping in to something at the top, there's a lot of pressure there.
    "But when there's opportunity for improvement, and people want you to help, that's an exciting challenge."

  Another bad day for Mark Martin. Maybe it is time for a change.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)





Pulling Reutimann from this ride is a joke. NASCAR is becoming a sport where sponsors are controlling who drives too much. I'm pretty sure Martin won't win or maybe will win once, but I mean Reutimann has won twice here and like the article says their program is suspect at best. Dale Jarrett's will to drive was sucked out of him here. Reutimann will likely fade into obscurity but he should take pride for what his has accomplished in his career in half-cracked Waltrip rides through the ranks. Disappointing.

More than one way to "win"

Dale Jr., Danica and (in his later years) Mark Martin have showed us that there is more than one way to win in racing. These drivers don't win on the track, but they win in the boardrooms and hospitality tents.

Reutimann might be a good driver, but he can barely speak into a camera. His Aaron's commercials are embarrassing. Unless a driver can bring a car to Victory Lane every so often, or at least keep it on TV, sponsors won't accept that.

Teams need sponsor dollars to survive. If a driver can't win races, he (or she) better be able to win customers.

Promotion vs. Competition

If NASCAR is going to be a contest to see who is best in front of a TV camera instead of who is best behind the wheel of a race car, I think I can find something better to watch. And there's no denying that things have been headed in that direction for some time. NASCAR should really take a close look at what happened to Indy Car because that is exactly what is ultimately behind it's decline.

Foreign drivers, regardless of their skill, were able to bring sponsorship dollars to the garage. Local sprint and midget drivers, fan favorites, who had provided the talent for the series forever, were left out. Owners took the series to road courses to favor their driver's talents and ovals were de-emphasized. Fans had no drivers to yell for and only road course racing to watch so they quit watching. All because the owners chose drivers who could bring sponsors rather than those who could drive and the sanctioning body did nothing.


I was shocked to hear that

I was shocked to hear that Mark Martin is going to drive for MWR and not SHR. I'm a long-time MM fan going back to his ASA short-track days and always wish the very best for him... but I'm really bummed out that Reuti had to lose his ride in the deal!
It would be really great if Reutimann could be in the SHR car and blow MWR's doors off... showing what he can do in first-rate equipment versus the crap that MWR fields. The chances of it happening are probably "slim to none"... with Aric or even Brian Vickers a more likely choice than Reuti to get the call.
Like many others, I believe that David Reutimann (along with Regan Smith) rank(s) as the most under-rated driver(s) in the Cup Series.
Good Fortune and Blessings to Mr. Reutimann as he looks for "a ride worthy of his talent!"
If anyone can help MWR improve their team/equipment... Mark Martin IS The MAN!

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