This time last year, Mark Martin was gearing up for a run at the Sprint Cup that would end with him only a few points behind eventual champion Jimmie Johnson. He was rolling, his team was clicking, everything appeared right with the jockeyesque driver and his happy new No. 5 team.
Alas, it couldn't last. Martin and his team have sputtered along all season, failing to string together any run of memorable races. And now, barring a total collapse by three different drivers, Martin will miss the Chase a year after being in position to win the Cup.
What's gone wrong?
"Well, you know, I don't really know," Martin said while laughing ruefully at a Tuesday teleconference. "I just know it happens. I've seen it happen before. But I don't really know ... Didn't really see this coming for the 5 car. And I just know that it happens, that things change and competition – you know, the target is a moving target. It always has been and always will be. And we were hitting the bull's-eye last year. And we haven't found the bull's-eye this year."
Martin won't do it, but we can point to a few possible clues for the downturn:
• The contract insecurity arising from Hendrick Motorsports signing Kasey Kahne for the 2012 season. Martin was left twisting in the wind for several months until the Red Bull deal for Kahne was finalized and Martin knew for certain where he'd be wheeling in 2011.
• The restructuring of the 5 and 88 shops. There are those who will say that Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s bad luck is contagious, a garage-transmitted disease, but that's probably not the case. Still, a new working environment makes new demands on employees, and perhaps that's sent the whole 5 team in the wrong direction.
• The unfortunate but possibly true fact that Martin was playing way over his head in 2009. Past performance is not a predictor of future results, as they say, and just because Martin ran well in 2009 is no guarantee he'd automatically run well this year. Maybe last year was the aberration, not this year.
Regardless, Martin remains one of the more compelling drivers in NASCAR, and he'll be grinding it out for wins long after many of the non-Chasers have hung up their steering wheels. And fortunately for him, he'll have another year to get pointed in the right direction.
"I couldn't have ever been prepared for having as tough a year as what we've had," Martin said. "But we're the same people, and we're working just the same together as we were a year ago. And that part of it feels good. You gotta focus on the positive. We have a great race team. Smartest people. Some of the smartest people in the business, very committed. We all really get along and respect one another. And we're going to work through this together, and we're going to get better together."