He may only have been an active Hendrick Motorsports driver for two weeks, but Mark Martin has already earned a career-best second place start at the Daytona 500 and has the #5 team in its best championship position after the opener for nine years.

The 50-year old also led 36 laps of his Gatorade Duel qualifying race before finishing second and spent more time in the top than any other car during the 500, but still only left Florida 15th in the Sprint Cup standings. That might be the highest position the team has #5 taken to round two of the season since Terry Labonte finished the 500 in seventh spot in 2000, but Martin is happy to get Daytona behind him.

"I feel a bit of relief getting past the Daytona 500 for lot of reasons," he admitted, "First of all, our performance was awesome at Daytona, so it feels good knowing that.

"But, even more than that, you can control your own destiny at the next tracks that are coming up, so I'm excited to get out there and get down to business week in and out with [crew chief] Alan [Gustafson] and the team. I feel like we can control things in the coming weeks more than we could at Daytona, and we don't have to rely on our buddies as much.

"It was Tuesday morning before I got over my frustrations over the Daytona 500. My biggest frustration was that, because of tyre trouble throughout the week, we played a more protective and conservative approach to the race. We wanted to make sure that we were in a position to use the hammer when it came time to do so. The time, we thought, had come right there before the rain came and we got ready to use it. But, before we got that chance, the rain came.

"So, to me, we didn't show our full potential based on the race strategy we played and having it cut short. We knew rain was coming, but we didn't realise it would come when it did. Otherwise, we were seventh with a definite shot to win. With that late pit-stop, we moved to the back and got in a position to do even better, we just needed 25 laps to get it done instead of ten."

First up for Martin and the CARQUEST/Kellogg's Chevrolet will be a 16th Cup Series start for the veteran at the Auto Club Speedway in Fontana this weekend. He won the 1998 event after leading 165 of 250 laps, and has posted four top-five finishes in the two-mile oval's time on the NASCAR schedule. Indeed, Martin has proven to have something of an affinity with the former California Speedway, as a Truck Series win in 2006 saw him become the first NASCAR driver to win a Cup, Busch/Nationwide, Truck and IROC Series race at the same track, having already won the Busch Series event at Fontana in 2005 and the IROC races in both 1997 and 1998.

Although this year will be his first trip out west with the Hendrick team, with the #5 team having also found some success there, he is confident of a good weekend - even if things aren't yet fully up to speed with his new crew.

"I feel really good and really comfortable with this race team, but certainly there are a few more lessons to learn," Martin confessed, "From my standpoint, I've really found areas that I may be able to help with.

"The team is so strong and has so much depth that, initially, I didn't think I could bring anything to the table. But now, with last week behind us, I see areas that I should've been more engaged in. As we move forward, Alan will find areas where he can help me a little more as well. We're not at 100 per cent yet, but I certainly feel we're at 90 per cent and will make gains as we go. We'll just take one race at a time and learn more about how we can complement each other."

Gustafson earned his first career Sprint Cup victory as a crew chief in the September 2005 event at Fontana, when the #5 team led 95 laps, and, under his direction, the team has scored one win, one pole position, two top fives and five top tens in the last eight Cup events at the Auto Club Speedway. Indeed, the entire Hendrick team appears to excel in SoCal, having won more races at Auto Club Speedway - seven - than at any other track on the West Coast. Jeff Gordon won the first Sprint Cup event held at Auto Club Speedway in June 1997, while team-mate - and reigning three-time Cup champion - Jimmie Johnson captured the most recent race there last August.

"I honestly feel that we're right on track with where we need to be," Gustafson said of the #5 team's build-up to Fontana, "All of our race sequences in Daytona went well. We never faced any major issues and really never had any of those 'growing pains' that new teams tend to have.

"On the flip side, we didn't face any adversity either. Everything went well for us. I imagine that, when we face an engine issue or a major handling issue, we may struggle finding the best ways to work through that. That's to be expected, but the best teams are the ones that face adversity and come out of it in a better position.

Like his new charge, however, the crew chief is happy to consign the Daytona 500 to memory for another year.

"Anytime you can get out of the Daytona 500 unscathed and in one piece, it's an accomplishment," he conceded, "We would normally look at a 16th-place finish in the race and feel good about that but, this year, that's a tough pill to swallow.

"The way we ran all week, 16th place is disappointing for us. I feel that we were deserving of a better finish and that we left a lot on the table there at the end. It's definitely frustrating, but overall it could've been a lot worse.

"Sunday night I was definitely frustrated - I was upset over our finish and some decisions I made throughout the race. But, Monday morning, when I walked into the office, I had to leave that behind me. My mind is strictly on California now. We have a lot of opportunity this weekend and the rest of the season for success. That's what this team is focused on now. There's nothing we can do to change last weekend's outcome, but there's a lot we can do to affect the finishes of future races."



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