Veteran racer Mark Martin is the "cautious" in the expression, "cautiously optimistic." That's why his unabashed excitement coming into the season was a story in and of itself.
His fans and competitors alike hoped a prime job in the No. 5 Chevrolet for mighty Hendrick Motorsports would land this popular four-time championship runner-up a last really good -- perhaps long -- shot at a Sprint Cup title. Instead, a string of uncanny bad racing luck -- uncharacteristic Hendrick engine problems and a flat tire -- have left Martin ranked 34th in the standings entering Sunday's race at Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway.
He's got only a nine-point cushion on 35th place, and a fall outside the top-35 will cost him a guaranteed starting spot on the grid beginning next week, when the guaranteed starts are allotted based on the current top-35 standings.
Just as surprising as seeing Martin in this perilous predicament is the high-quality company he's keeping there.