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Top 20 Countdown: No. 18 Mark Martin

Jay Busbee
Yahoo Sports

Editor's note: Yahoo! Sports is counting down the top 20 drivers of the 2011 season. The order was determined by a survey asking five NASCAR journalists – Jay Busbee and Jay Hart (Yahoo! Sports), Jenna Fryer (Associated Press), Dustin Long (Landmark Newspapers) and Nate Ryan (USA Today) – to predict the final standings for the 2011 season. The countdown will conclude on Feb. 11 with the unveiling of the No. 1 driver.

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(Getty Images)

2010 statistics
Finish Poles Wins Top 5 Top 10
13 1 0 7 11
The countdown
No. 17: Revealed Jan. 18

2010 finish: 13th

Our 2011 predictions:
• Jay Busbee: 18th
• Jay Hart: 10th
• Jenna Fryer: not ranked in top 20
• Dustin Long: 14th
• Nate Ryan: not ranked in top 20

2011 outlook: This time last year, Mark Martin was coming off one of the finest seasons of his career, a year in which he came from semi-retirement to challenge Jimmie Johnson for the Sprint Cup all the way into November. He had the sport's hottest young crew chief on the box in Alan Gustafson and the backing of the most successful owner of the past two decades in Rick Hendrick. He had put to rest all those too-old-to-drive jokes, and everything appeared paved for Martin to make another run at the Cup.

He started out well enough – the pole at Daytona, two fourth-place finishes in the season's first three races – but before long, Martin settled back into the uncomfortable middle of the pack. He ended the season with just seven top-five finishes, and four of those came in the season's first nine races.

Off the track, he had to deal with questions about Kasey Kahne's impending arrival at Hendrick Motorsports. Kahne was scheduled to take Martin's seat in 2012, but the rumor mill was in full swing with intimations that Martin be "encouraged" to leave earlier. Martin's patience grew thin as the year wore on, and only Kahne's alignment with Red Bull late in the season stopped the questions.

So what does all this mean for Martin in his lame-duck 2011 season? The "Great Hendrick Switch" means that he'll have former Dale Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Lance McGrew running the show, and conventional wisdom holds McGrew in the least regard among the three chiefs who switched teams. But Martin is knowledgeable about his car and every track to a degree virtually unmatched in NASCAR; it's entirely possible he'll be able to forge a working relationship with McGrew which runs deeper than McGrew's previous gig.

Regardless, the window has likely closed on Martin's opportunity for a championship. While Martin has the absolute respect of everyone in the garage, many drivers will be paying their respects in the rearview mirror.

What you need to know: Martin is 52 years old, but he's as vibrant as drivers a third his age. Matter of fact, he'll be running against drivers a third his age, as he announced recently that he'll get behind the wheel in all three series. Martin's a future Hall of Famer, and he's beginning the transition from driver to mentor this year. But he's still got some racing left to do; don't be surprised if he grabs a couple more victories on his way out.