Monday July 27th, 2009

Five things we learned on Sunday at the Brickyard, the most historic track in America.

1. Juan Pablo Montoya made a statement.

It's blue-moon rare in NASCAR when something happens in a race that truly astonishes close observers. This, after all, is a sport that is thoroughly dominated by three superpower teams. Just look at the results. Last year drivers from Joe Gibbs Racing, Hendrick Motorsports, and Roush-Fenway Racing won 21 of the last 22 races. In other words, upsets aren't the norm in the Sprint Cup series.

Which is why Juan Pablo Montoya's performance on Sunday was so ... so ... what's the word? ... spectacular. Driving for Earnhardt Ganassi Racing -- a team, by the way, that has largely been an afterthought for most of the season -- Montoya positively dusted the field for the first two-and-half hours of the race. How fast was he? Well, he was never passed under the green flag as he led 116 of the first 125 laps. What's more, he pulled away from every other driver on each re-start, displaying a breathtaking amount of horsepower and handling. It was the equivalent of seeing Appalachian State beat Michigan.

But then Montoya made a serious gaffe: On his final pit stop, with 35 laps to go, he was busted for speeding on pit road. What made this mistake so utterly mindless was that he had a five-second lead at the time, so he should have been overly cautious and been well under the pit road speed of 55 mph. Montoya, predictably, claimed he wasn't speeding and that NASCAR had made a mistake, but after the race he acknowledged that he had committed a blunder.

"It is what it is," Montoya said. "You can't change it so it is pretty frustrating."

When asked about the race, Montoya smirked and replied, "It was kind of easy, to be honest. I was cruising. The car was stupid fast."

Indeed it was. To read more about the emergence of Montoya, check out my story in the magazine this week.

2. Montoya will be a factor in the Chase.

The Brickyard is always a telling indicator for who will perform well in the Chase. Why? Because teams always bring their best and newest equipment to Indy, a race that ranks as one of the four Majors in NASCAR. (The other three, in my opinion, are the Daytona 500, the Coke 600 at Charlotte, and the season-finale at Homestead.)

Three of the last four winners at Indy have gone on to win the championship. Montoya, by all rights, should have taken the checkers on Sunday, which bodes well for his Chase chances. He's currently 10th in points. Barring a series of wrecks or mechanical failures over the next six races, he'll make the ten-race playoff. And every driver I talked late on Sunday afternoon expressed the same sentiment: If he gets in, Montoya could be the surprise of the Chase.

Rival drivers consider Montoya a wild card. Why? Because even though he's piloting inferior equipment -- and clearly, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing is not on the same level as the likes of Hendrick and Roush -- Montoya is running near the front. It's often hard to discern skill in motorsports, but not with Montoya. It says here he'll win at least one race before the season is over, perhaps as soon as Aug. 9 at Watkins Glen.

3. Jimmie Johnson is warming up.

For the last three years the pattern has mostly been the same for Johnson and his crew chief Chad Knaus: Start the season slow, then win a race or two in the spring, slump in the early summer, turn it on in late July, peak at the start of the Chase, seize the championship. Well, here we go again.

On Sunday Johnson won for the third time in his career at Indy. Johnson's victories at the Brickyard in '06 and '08 ignited his late-season surge and, ultimately, propelled him to Cup titles. Currently second in points behind Tony Stewart, Johnson will go for broke for wins over these next six weeks, trying to earn as many bonus points as possible that he can carry into the Chase. Don't bet against him on Sept. 6th at Atlanta, where he has three career victories.

4. Mark Martin is an ageless wonder.

If there's one driver who can run nose-to-nose with Johnson in the Chase, it's Martin. After winning the pole at the Brickyard, Martin stayed in the top-three all afternoon and wound up finishing second to Johnson. It was nearly impossible to pass on the 2.5-mile oval -- truth be told, the Cup races at Indy simply aren't that thrilling because it's incredibly difficult to pass due to the aerodynamics of the place -- but Martin gamely stayed close to Johnson's bumper for the final 15 laps, hoping that Johnson would make a mistake. JJ didn't, yet Martin proved something to the rest of the field: Even at the age of 50, he's as fast as anyone in the sport, especially on flat tracks. As of right now, I say the championships comes down to a battle between Johnson and Martin.

5. Your winner on Sunday at Pocono will be... Carl Edwards.

To find out why, check back on Friday.

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