Hendrick Motorsports announced on Wednesday that Mark Martin would be back to run the No. 5 car full-time in the Sprint Cup Series next season, ending weeks of speculation as to whether Martin would run the second year of his contract in whole or on a part-time basis.
Prior to this year's race at Bristol, many believed Martin would split the No. 5 in 2010 with Brad Keselowski, who drives for Hendrick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Nationwide Series. It's unclear what Martin's decision does to Keselowski's future, but Hendrick said last week he was currently in talks with Keselowski regarding a long-term, exclusive contract.
Earnhardt, the owner of JR Motorsports, said he wants Keselowski in the No. 88 Nationwide Series ride next season, but that anything on the Cup side was "up to Rick." Rumors circulate that should Keselowski find a full-time Cup ride next season, it could be in a third car for Stewart-Haas Racing, which receives engines, chassis and technical support from Hendrick -- making SHR more or less Hendrick Lite.
Another rumor, though more a far-fetched one, has Keselowski moving to Joe Gibbs Racing in 2010, taking over the No. 20 while Joey Logano moved to a fourth JGR ride. This one is particularly unlikely, especially with Hendrick working on a long-term exclusive deal with Keselowski.
But here's another rumor that seems to be gaining a little traction. Jeff Gordon's contract with sponsor DuPont runs out after the 2010 season. With Gordon's back problems -- along with his marriage and daughter -- there's speculation he could retire after the 2010 or 2011 season and take on a management position within Hendrick Motorsports (he's already listed as a co-owner on the No. 48 of Jimmie Johnson). That would open up the No. 24, possibly for Keselowski.
This is, of course, assuming Keselowski doesn't take over the No. 5 after 2010. Then again, Martin could pull a Brett Favre and come back yet again. While the No. 24 rumor is intriguing, can you imagine the pressure that would be on whoever takes over that ride? Taking over a car that's won four Cup championships and 82 races to this point?
We've seen how infrequently the No. 43 has been to Victory Lane since Richard Petty retired. Much of that has to do with organizational flaws within Petty Enterprises -- and now Richard Petty Motorsports -- but there's always that pressure to perform well in the King's ride. Bobby Hamilton managed just fine, and even John Andretti put the No. 43 back in Victory Lane, but no one since -- not even 2000 series champion Bobby Labonte -- has been able to succeed in that ride.
It would be similar for whoever slides into the No. 24 once Gordon walks away, even though Hendrick's resources and personnel would make for an easier transition. We've already seen what happens when an unproven young driver slides into a prime Cup seat; Logano has struggled in the No. 20 so far this season -- a team and crew that has hoisted two Sprint Cup trophies.
Not saying the same will happen to Keselowski -- he's not being rushed into the Cup Series -- but the possibility is there. The best thing Richard Childress did when he named Kevin Harvick as the late Dale Earnhardt's successor was change the car's number and paint scheme. That allowed Harvick to create his own identity, and even though the team has struggled of late, Harvick doesn't face the pressure of "being in Dale's ride."
In the immediate future, though, this is excellent news for Martin. Were it not for two blown motors and a blown tire in three of the season's first four races, the No. 5 might be near the top of the standings, rather than fighting to get into the Chase. Martin already won a race this season, at Phoenix, and there's no reason to believe he won't win at least one more before the season ends.
I won't say Martin will win the title this year, but he's in the mix -- and he might be in the mix next year, too.