Mark Martin's Sprint Cup season is at a crossroads - and it's only the fifth race of the year.

Going into Sunday's Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway, Martin's #5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is 35th in owners points. The top 35 cars in the owners standings are guaranteed starting spots each week.

Instead of being a fixture in the top twelve and positioning himself for a spot in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Martin is battling to stay in the top 35.

"The main goal is to get back up on our feet," said Alan Gustafson, Martin's crew chief. "I feel that we've been kicked down a lot in the beginning of this season, and we have to turn that around. We need to have solid finishes. Well, first we need to finish."

Martin has two DNFs in his first four races - 40th-place finishes at Fontana and Las Vegas.

"Nothing we're doing - as far as setup, speed, pit stops - has been wrong," he said. "We've been doing everything right. We just haven't finished a race due to the two engines and the tire at Atlanta. So it's hard to say that we need to change what we're doing, because I don't believe that's the truth. We just need to start getting the finishes we deserve."

Martin finished 31st and was running at the finish at Atlanta, completing 316 of 330 laps. He is off to the worst start of his Cup career, which began in the early '80s. His recipe for turning his season around is a simple one.

"The first goal is to finish a race - the complete distance on the lead lap. That's the first one. No matter where we finish," he said. "Instead of trying to shoot the lights out, we really just need to complete the distance and continue to build our communications with Alan.. Hopefully we'll start getting consistent finishes and results."

Martin has two wins and 21 top-ten finishes at Bristol in 40 races but has one top-10 finish in his past 12 starts at the .533-mile track. His victories came in 1993 and 1998.
Five to watch:
Denny Hamlin, #11:
Bristol has been a little track of horrors for Hamlin.. Last March, he had the lead for the green-white-chequered restart but a fuel-pickup problem stalled the car as he took the green flag. He finished sixth. In March 2007, Hamlin finished 14th after leading 177 laps before a fuel-pickup problem stalled him on a restart with less than 20 laps to go.
Ryan Newman, #39:
Newman has struggled mightily this year and is 32nd in points. He has an all-or-nothing record at Bristol. In 14 races, he has six finishes in the 30s and seven finishes in the top 10. His lone top five, a second, was in August 2004.
Jimmie Johnson, #48:
Johnson has eight short-track wins but none at Bristol, where he has one top 10 in his past seven races (23.4 average finish). He is 13th in points. Only once in his career has Johnson been outside the top 10 after five races, and that was last year (13th).
Brian Vickers, #83:
Vickers is riding a streak of three straight top 10s that has moved him from 40th after the Daytona 500 to 11th in points. He has yet to master, Bristol, though. In nine races, his best finish was 12th four years ago, and his average finish is 25.7.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., #88:
Junior has a solid record and Bristol and needs to stay the course to continue moving up the points standings (he's 24th). The last time he finished outside the top 20 at Bristol was eight years ago, and in the 15 races since, he has 10 top 10s, including seven top fives and one win.
Track chatter:
Donnie Wingo, crew chief for Jamie McMurray:
"It's all about track position and being able to avoid the wrecks that always seem to take place. You'll see a lot of teams taking chances on pit road this weekend with two tires or fuel-only stops; basically whatever teams feel they need to do in order to gain track position. You must be up at the front at the end of the race in order to get a decent finish."
Tony Eury Jr., crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr.:
"The spotter is real critical. You've got to make moves quick at Bristol--they almost have to be spur of the moment and a lot of times the reaction of your driver, if you wait on your spotter to tell your driver to move, well, most of the time it may be too late. Your driver has to pay good attention, be looking in the mirrors and know his surroundings to try to take care of it. The spotter is just up there for a little bit of help. The biggest thing is to have your driver be aware of what's going on."
Kurt Busch, a five-time winner at Bristol:
"As far as the strategy behind my success, I learned from the very first race that you have to be around at the finish to do well at Bristol. It really is a situation of surviving the first 400 laps - keeping the fenders on the thing and staying out of the wall. Then, if you're in good shape after four-fifths of the race, it's time to really get down to business during the final 100 laps."

by Bill Marx/Sporting News



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