When Tony Stewart got injured in a sprint car race and realized he would be out for the season, the obvious next question was who would drive the No. 14 Bass Pro Shops Chevy.
Austin Dillon stepped into the seat for the first race at Michigan and drove to a very respectable 14th place finish. Shortly after the Michigan race weekend it was announced that veteran driver Mark Martin would fill the seat for remainder of the season, with the exception of Talladega.
The decision to put Martin in the seat was a popular choice among fans. He has a very loyal fan base that follow him anywhere he drives. The expectations for the Batesville, Arkansas driver were very high. Many expected him to be in victory lane – many of those expected it to be more than once.
Results, however, have been less than stellar. In seven starts, Martin’s average starting position is 21.8 with his average finishing position at 19.3. During that time he has not led any laps and his best finish was ninth at Richmond. These results have definitely disappointed the Martin fanbase.
The disappointment continued at Charlotte. Martin qualified a mediocre 22nd for the Bank of America 500. It wasn’t long before things went sour. The Hendrick Motorsports engine in the No. 14 developed a misfire. It was later determined to be a broken valve spring.
Shortly thereafter, on lap 82, the engine let go. Martin would finish a dismal 42nd. After his departure from the event, he talked about the trouble saying, “Well we broke a valve spring earlier and we were trying to nurse it along to maybe a caution where we could possibly work on it a little bit where it wouldn’t self-destruct, but we didn’t get that. When you run one with a broken valve spring – a lot of times you wind up failing something else. I hate it for everybody.”
There may be no one reason for the lackluster performance, there are, however, many theories. At Charlotte it was just a blown engine, completely out of Martin’s control, but that doesn’t explain the other races.
Some believe that with Tony out of the car, the team has decided to give the so-called better equipment to the other Stewart-Haas teams of Patrick and Newman. The evidence used to support this theory is that Newman’s performance has improved recently.
Another theory presented this weekend at Charlotte was that the team has lost their desire and drive to win with Tony on the sidelines. That seems a stretch given the fact that most raceteams are made up of people who love racing. Racers want to win, no matter what. To say that they are just going through the motions and have no real desire to win, seems highly unlikely.
When you look at the real numbers, Martin’s performance is on par with the results he was getting when he drove the No. 55 car for Michael Waltrip Racing. He did qualify better throughout the season, but his finishes were usually about the same as they are now in the No. 14 car.
Obviously, there are many variables that can affect the results for any team. We may never know what the exact cause may be. Martin is in the late stages of his career. Maybe we just need to accept the fact that, though he is a great ambassador for the sport, his ability may be a little off from where it was in the past.
All of us hate to admit that our heroes are not as good as they used to be. When Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip were in the twilight of their careers, they struggled to make the race, let alone perform well. Waltrip was the target of many jokes and criticisms due to his lackluster performance. To many, those sub-par years put a blemish on their otherwise impressive careers. Rusty Wallace, on the other hand, retired while he was still performing well.
Maybe it’s time, as unpopular as this will be, for Martin to call it quits before he puts a blemish on his legacy.