Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Charlotte NASCAR Banking 500 Preview: It May Be JPM Time Saturday Night

by Micah Roberts

After four Chase races, three-time defending Champion Jimmie Johnson has taken over the NASCAR’s Chase for the Championship lead. His win at California on Sunday was his second of the Chase in the last three races, his all-time track leading fourth overall, and fifth overall of the season.

It’s a remarkable feat that Mark Martin was able hold on for as long as he has. Hanging with Johnson is a tough feat to do. Through the four races, even with a 10-point lead and finishes of first, second, seventh, and fourth, Martin’s excellence isn’t good enough.

Carl Edwards is one driver who can relate with Martin about the dominant wrath of Johnson when it becomes crunch time in NASCAR. Last season in the 10 race Chase, Edwards had eight finishes within the top-4 that included three wins, but it still wasn’t good enough to keep up with the machine that Johnson is.

This by no means makes it over. I think we’re just so programmed into thinking that Johnson will win because he’s given us no reason to think he won’t. Winning three straight titles has only happened once so there isn’t a lot to go by as far as watching history and seeing a three-time champ fail in their bid for a fourth title. Johnson is writing history as we go right before our eyes.

Martin is only 12-points away from Johnson and Juan Pablo Montoya is only 58-points out after another impressive run saw him finish third at California. Tony Stewart is 84-points out in fourth while the hard charger of the week, Jeff Gordon, is 105-points out in fifth place.

After a rough first race of the Chase for four-time Cup Champion Gordon, he’s come on strong with sixth at Dover and then back to back second’s at Kansas and California. This week he’s going to another mile-and-a- half track that he and his team should be ready for. All season long, these have been the type of tracks where Gordon has excelled the best and it’s just his luck that three of the next six races are on these type of tracks.

Of all the drivers may have a shot at catching Johnson by beating him at his own game, it could be Gordon even though he’s over 100 points behind right now. We talked about the three races he should do well at, which Johnson will too. Martinsville and Phoenix are tracks where both have run at as well. Between those five tracks, there doesn’t appear to be enough point differential for Gordon to catch Johnson.

The one major variable in the mix is Talladega, which could be described to Johnson as Superman’s kryptonite because it’s the one place he can’t control and dominate. In 15 career starts there, he’s had only four top-5 finishes including a win there in 2006. This season in his first attempt there Johnson finished 30th, one position better than he had starting the year off at the other restrictor plate track in Daytona.

If Johnson were to mirror what he’s done this year at Talladega on Nov 1, it could shake up the entire Chase. The difference between finishing first and 30th is 112 points which means that there is still hope for all the drivers, especially great plate drivers like Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

Remember earlier in the year when Montoya started talking about just wanting to make the Chase and he had a plan to shoot for top-10’s and if he accumulated enough of them, he should be in good shape. At the time based on the way his team had run on all the ovals, we just kind of said, “Yeah, okay, sure JP, good luck with that.”

But then he started to do it and before we knew it he had cracked the top-12 and then was entrenching himself into the top-8 and it got to a point where he was so good every week that there was never a doubt that he wouldn’t make the Chase.

Now after four races in the Chase, JPM is sitting third in points chasing down Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin for the Championship. It truly is a remarkable accomplishment. After bringing out new chassis’ for the first three races, last week they brought their Indy chassis and rolled nice. In the four Chase races, JPM has two thirds and two fourths.

After almost three full seasons, Montoya has finally become one of the good ole’ Boys. He used to be accused of conceitedness because he kept to himself. Writers and other teams thought he was full of himself because he was the International Superstar who had won at Indy and Monaco and thought NASCAR was beneath him.

But the fact was, Montoya didn’t like how was running and was somewhat embarrassed by his finishes. Plus, he wasn’t one of the guys. He didn’t come from any of their stock car series on the way up.

But now that he’s competing, he’s chit-chatting with everyone in the garage, especially those in contention, trying to pick their brains for any piece of knowledge he can extract to better himself. He’s also become more endearing with the media with his frank candidness saying whatever he’s thinking with no sugar-coating.

Welcome to NASCAR JPM, Good luck in the JJ hunt. Based on the last run he had in Atlanta, a track very similar to Charlotte, this may be the week Montoya captures his first win of the season and his first non-road course win in the series.

TOP 5 Charlotte Finish Prediction:
1) #42 Juan Pablo Montoya (14/1)
2) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
3) #5 Mark Martin (10/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (14/1)
5) #9 Kasey Kahne (14/1)

Johnsons’ Last Race at Lowe’s
This weeks race at Charlotte marks the final race under the track sponsorship of Lowe’s. However, Lowe’s will still be sponsoring Jimmie Johnson who will be bringing a chassis that has raced only once, a 36th at Atlanta, in hopes of winning his sixth race in Charlotte which would tie a track record.

"Without a doubt, it really would be nice to win there,” Johnson said. “It has been a great relationship with the track and Lowe's and then all the victories we have had there have been really neat. The track, I really think since it was resurfaced, it just changed the dynamic of the race for us. I had some lines that worked really well. I think our setup worked really well for the abrasive track. Rough tracks with bumps and things like that seem to work well for me with my background. It just worked. It was one of those tracks that just worked. They ground the track and it still worked well for us. We came back and it was resurfaced and we were competitive but we didn't have an advantage by any means. I really think the surface has a lot to do with it. It has made the track more forgiving than it was in the past and I think it helped close the gap. I am hoping the track hurries up and ages and gets rough and bumpy and turns back in to the track it used to be.

"We work on stuff each time we go back. This year I think we'll be better yet. The last few times we have been there, we have just been super tight and needed more front grip with the car. I think we are a little smarter even from the All-Star and the Coca Cola 600 weekend, we're smarter now than we were then and hopefully it makes a difference."

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