Monday, September 23, 2013

Five races and counting: Mark Martin pilots the No. 14 car under the radar

Martin in the garage at Atlanta in September 2013.
Credit: Charlotte Bray for Skirts and Scuffs  
Mark Martin has been driving under the radar lately, quietly piloting the Stewart-Haas Racing Mobil 1/Bass Pro Shops Chevy for the past five races. In a season with multiple “big stories,” Tony Stewart’s broken leg and the search to fill his seat was the major news in NASCAR a few weeks ago. But not anymore.

The fact that Martin is substituting for Smoke might have gotten more sustained media attention if it weren’t overshadowed by the scandal and ongoing fallout after the Richmond race. Martin exited Michael Waltrip Racing in time to avoid any connection with the alleged finagling that affected the final laps of the last race before the Chase.

Since then, the veteran driver has been getting to know his new team and taking things one race at a time.

“Making this change (to SHR) was pretty huge because not only is it different crew guys working on the car, which really isn’t a huge thing, but it’s a whole different thought process,” Martin said before the Richmond race. “It’s a whole different bunch of guys that I didn’t have a chance to go to test with in February and go hang out with in the shop.”

Making the move to Stewart-Haas added more races to his schedule than Martin had originally planned, but he is up for the challenge.

“I am really driven to try to get immersed in this team and figure out what I like in these cars so that we can start putting that in there week to week.”

In the five races he’s completed in the No. 14 car this season, Martin’s best finish was ninth at Richmond. He finished 23rd at Loudon on Sunday in his 875th career Sprint Cup start.

“It was a frustrating day,” Martin said about his New Hampshire run. “We just could never get track position. But we also had some bright spots in that the changes we made to the car were good changes, and some of our strategies would’ve worked had a caution come out at the right time. It wasn’t the ideal race, but we’ll take the good things and continue to build on those.”

Martin knows a thing or two about building on the good side of things. He has a reputation for building up his crew, deflecting praise to those around him and respecting his fellow competitors. Heading into the Chicagoland race, Martin compared the mutual respect and “give and take” between drivers on the race track today, as opposed to earlier in his career.

“It’s a little tougher today, for sure. None of us are able to grant as much respect to one another as we could back in the day because the cars are so much closer together in speed and they’re so much harder to pass because there’s not that big separation in speed from car to car. But the bottom line is still, I try not to cause a wreck. I try to race as hard as I can possibly go and do as many things as I can that are right up on the edge, but not over the edge where it causes an accident.”

As their hauler pulls out of New Hampshire Motor Speedway and heads toward Dover, Martin sits 28th in points. The 54-year-old driver boasts four career Cup wins on the concrete Monster Mile. Perhaps this is the weekend Martin and his No. 14 team will make a little noise as they battle Miles for a chance at victory lane.

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