INDIANAPOLIS – If you believe Mark Martin's optimism, the 51-year-old isn't out of the title hunt yet.
No, he's not among the 12 drivers who would make the Chase if the playoff started today, and no, he hasn't won a race this season, and no, he hasn't scored a top 10 in nearly two months. Despite all that, Martin still insists his team is better than it was a year ago and that they're on the brink of finding the speed his No. 5 has been missing all season.
The speed part may just be true.
On a steaming hot day at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where track temperatures reached 120 degrees, Martin qualified third for Sunday's Brickyard 400. It's an impressive starting spot considering his qualifying run came nearly 40 minutes after the 1-2 runs of Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmie Johnson, who had the benefit of a cooler and thus faster race track.
"We knew we were up against the [qualifying] draw," Martin said. "We also knew we had a good race car and we showed that."
Having confidence in his car isn't something Martin has had a lot of this season, which is surprising considering his runner-up finish a year ago. And though he was on the bubble in the run up to last year's Chase, the realities between 2009 and 2010 are stark in their contrast.
Through 19 races in 2009, Martin had won four races and had led 414 laps. This season, he's finished no better than fourth and has led in only five races for a total of 47 laps.
On top of his on-track struggles, Martin has had to deal with the constant questions off the track about his future. Is he really going to be back in the No. 5 next season or is he going to give way to Kasey Kahne?
Ever since the announcement that Kahne will be in the No. 5 in 2012, Martin has insisted he's staying put for one more year. But that hasn't stopped a swarm of speculation to the contrary, of which Martin has finally grown tired.
"I felt very disrespected when the media doesn't accept that [I'm staying in the No. 5 through 2011]," Martin said Friday at IMS. "What that means is that you made me look like I am about to get fired. That's very disrespectful, guys. That's what you all are doing. It's very disrespectful, and I deserve better than that from you guys."
Part of the reason for the speculation pointing to Martin not staying put is that he hasn't been close to the championship form he displayed last season. With seven races to go until the Chase begins, he currently sits 14th, 37 points out of 12th.
But just as he insists he's staying put, he insists there's still time to get back to the form he showed a year ago.
"It's not too late, but it's very close," he said after qualifying on Saturday. "It looks really good this weekend, but I don't think that you can judge the rest of the schedule based on one good two days.
"We have a lot of work in front of us. We're working really hard – harder than we ever have," he continued. "So that's what we can do. We can control that and that's what we're doing. You know, we're really focused and dug in."
Who is the favorite, the popular pick and the wild card in Sunday's Brickyard 400?
The favorite: Jimmie Johnson
Despite finishing second to Juan Pablo Montoya in the first two practices and in qualifying, Jimmie Johnson, based on his two-time defending champion status and the fact that he's won three of the last four races at the Brickyard, remains the driver to beat.
Johnson took exception to the suggestion that his wasn't the fastest car a year ago, a race in which Montoya led 116 of 160 laps, and will certainly be out to prove he's still the top dog at Indy.
"The fact that we started 16th and drove up into the battle for the lead, I think shows a lot for what our car did last year," Johnson said. "Yes, Juan was fast in clean air, but when he got mired in traffic, he couldn't go anywhere. Not taking a shot at Juan, but I'm really proud of what we did last year."
The popular pick: Juan Pablo Montoya
Though he insists he's over what happened at Indy a year ago, when a speeding penalty on pit road cost him an almost sure victory, Montoya knows he let one get away.
"He definitely didn't have the superior car," Montoya said of Johnson. "I think I had the superior car, I think the 5 car was the second-fastest car. He probably had the third- or fourth-fastest car. He just had a good restart and that's it."
A victory for Montoya would make him the first driver to win both the Indy 500 and the Brickyard 400, and though he said anything less wouldn't be disappointing, it's clear both he and team owner Chip Ganassi want it badly.
"The fact of the matter is I want to be here talking to you after tomorrow's race for good reasons," said Ganassi, who has already won the Daytona 500 and Indy 500 this season. "You've got to go through a whole race tomorrow, that's why they have a race. So, you know, if they didn't have a race tomorrow we could just hand the trophy out now."
"I'll take it," Montoya said.
"Yeah," Ganassi replied. "Unfortunately that's not the way it is."
The wild cards: Richard Childress Racing
Burton, Bowyer and Harvick were 1, 2, 3 in the first practice; in the second and final practice, Burton was second fastest (behind Martin Truex Jr.), while Bowyer was third.
All three RCR drivers will start in the top 10.
- Juan Pablo Montoya
- Jimmie Johnson