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Martin Considers Himself A Strong(er) Contender

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 16 2010
Mark Martin says that he feels confident that he can deprive Jimmie Johnson of a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship this year. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

Mark Martin says that he feels confident that he can deprive Jimmie Johnson of a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship this year. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images)

By Rick Minter | Senior Writer

Daytona Beach, Fla. – Midway through the first flush of the fan and media appearances that signal the start of another Sprint Cup season, there seems to be one small group that isn’t quite ready to concede a fifth straight championship to Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 team.

That group numbers about 42 – the drivers Johnson will have to beat to win that title. Not surprisingly, some of the strongest comments come from the drivers who finished close to him in points, his Hendrick Motorsports teammates Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon.

“First of all, how do we know that Jimmie Johnson is the team to beat in 2010?” Martin asked. “You can’t really control what other people do and how they perform. What you can do is focus on your performance and strengthening everything in your program. And (crew chief) Alan Gustafson and I and the team have looked at every piece of it, and we have tried to add strength to every part of it.

“When you’re performing on the level that we performed in 2009, it’s hard to make large gains in any one area. But if you can make just a little bit of gain in most areas, then hopefully that will be you that the field is chasing.”

Martin said that for starters, he’s in better physical shape today than he’s been in decades, thanks to some hard work in the brief off-season.

“I’ve  been able to be really strict with training and rehab (for his plantar fasciitis foot disorder),” he said. “I’ve made significant gains in strength and I’m feeling really good, probably the best I’ve been since 1990 or ‘91, stronger than I have been since then.”

He said that after two days of tires testing at Atlanta Motor Speedway this week that he feels like he and his team haven’t lost a beat.

“It certainly looked like we picked up where we left off last year,” he said. “We’ve been working really hard in every single area to strengthen and make our program better, stronger and more productive for 2010. I feel really confident.”

He pointed out that as a team, he and Gustafson and the 5 crew are much farther along than they were a year ago this time.

“We hadn’t even run a race yet a year ago,” he said. “So we are better. Alan has put together a very, very strong program, and there’s been some people moved around between the 5 and the 88 (Dale Earnhardt Jr. team) that will make both of us better and stronger…

“I’m not Mr. Optimistic, I’m not Mr. Pessimistic, I’m Mr. Realistic. And realistically speaking, I can’t tell you what the result will be in 2010, but… we are better than we were a year ago. I just don’t know how much better our competition is.”

Jeff Gordon, who finished third behind Johnson and Martin in the standings last year, pointed out that the “baby curse” could work against the defending champ this year. And this comes from a driver who has some recent first-hand experience in trying to win championships with a newborn in the next room.

“It doesn’t affect your desire to want to win,” Gordon said. “It doesn’t affect you in the car not wanting to take risks. It didn’t affect me that way, and I don’t think it’s going to affect Jimmie. I haven’t seen it affect other drivers that way.

“Where it affects you is it’s a very important part of your life that is amazing, and you want to experience it to the fullest, and there’s no way that that can’t affect your priorities a little bit or a lot.”

Plus, he said, it can cost a driver a lot of sleep in the beginning.

And Gordon thinks he and his team will be more formidable this year too, and that’s based on the fact that they weren’t exactly bad last year.

“It’s not like we need to reinvent the wheel here,” he said, adding that he and crew chief Steve Letarte have talked over the winter about improving their communication during races.

“I feel like we started off a lot of races this year as one of the best cars, but I don’t feel like we maintained that throughout the season or throughout the race and to the finish, and I feel like a lot of that is just information I’m giving him and some of that interaction,” he said.

Gordon also said he’s worked out hard over the winter and believes that will be a factor too.

“I’m a lot stronger, and I’m excited about that and maintaining that throughout the season,” he said.

Others in the garage see Johnson as beatable as well.

Carl Edwards, who like Johnson will be attempting to head off the baby curse, said his team showed in 2008 that it’s possible to run fender to fender with the 48, even during the Chase.

“We beat them in pretty much everything except total points in last 10 races of 2008,” he said. “You just have to keep your head down and keep working.”

– Rick Minter can be reached at rminter@racintoday.com

| Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Saturday, January 16 2010
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