Monday September 28th, 2009

Five things we learned as the Chase field wrapped up the second of its 10 races.

1. Jimmie Johnson's fourth title might just be inevitable

Two weeks ago at Loudon, much was made of Johnson's form heading into the Chase, which seemed less than stellar. Even for a three-time defending champion, it seemed that one top-10 run (and an average finish of 18.3) in six races was enough to sow some doubt. But nobody should be skeptical anymore.

After one of the more dominant performances of his career, during which he led 217 laps, including the last 224 -- Johnson again stamped himself as the favorite to win it all. He has won nine of his 32 Chase starts, and hasn't finished outside the top 15 in his last 38. He attributes this state of affairs to the makeup of the Chase, which he says includes some of his favorite tracks. If that's the case, NASCAR may want to rethink it's schedule and throw in a few road courses, the only circuits on which the number 48 Chevy doesn't seem to excel. Who else is going to stop him?

2. Mark Martin, that's who

One week removed from his triumph at Loudon, the ageless wonder of Cup racing was nearly as good, finishing second to Johnson and holding on to the overall points lead. Martin's margin over Johnson now stands at 10 points, exactly where it stood heading into New Hampshire, and right now, he seems the only man capable of wresting the championship away from the 48 team. According to crew chief Alan Gustafson, Martin's team is peaking, and its 1.5 average finish so far in the Chase confirms it. "One-point-five," he says, "I'm sure that will win it."

3. Don't expect Matt Kenseth's third-place finish to mean anything in the big picture for Roush Fenway Racing

According to Kenseth's crew chief, Drew Blickensderfer, his team's strong result came about because of its willingness to experiment with setups last weekend -- something it likely wouldn't have done had the team been involved in the Chase. The fact is, the Roush Fenway cars have fallen behind the Hendrick cars this year. "Just on speed, do I think any of our company cars can win [the Chase]?" Kenseth said in response to one question. "No, I don't."

4. Juan Pablo Montoya validated his run at New Hampshire

To recap: Montoya ran a new car two weeks ago at New Hampshire, dominated the speed charts, led the most laps in the race and finished fourth; he ran a new car last weekend at Dover, stayed fast, ran up front and again finished fourth. It makes you kind of think that next Sunday at Kansas, where he will be running yet another new machine, is likely to go the same way. Montoya is third in the overall standings, just 55 points behind Martin. It's not yet evident that he is capable of winning a championship, but a victory sometime in the next eight races wouldn't be at all surprising.

5. Whatever is going on with the Kurt Busch-Pat Tryson relationship, it's working

Busch is another driver who, while he may not be a championship contender, seems likely to be in the hunt until the very end. He led 99 laps at Dover, and ran up front all day, finally finishing fifth. The performance was all the more remarkable considering that Tryson, his crew chief, is only allowed to visit the Penske Racing shop once a week -- for the regular de-briefing meeting.

Tryson announced on the eve of the New Hampshire race that he was leaving Penske at the end of the season for a similar role at Michael Waltrip Racing in 2010. (The concern is that if Tryson is privy to Penske's preparations for next year, then he could take that information to his new home at MWR.) What's amazing is that the rift has not affected Busch's performance in the least. The number 5 Dodge is fourth in the points standings.

"I don't see it bringing up any issues," Busch said Tuesday. "The fact of him still being there on race weekends and being the leader will definitely keep the continuity together Friday, Saturday and Sunday. With him just showing up on Tuesdays, crew guys are off on Monday, so everybody's off Mondays."

5 (a) Say what you will about the new car, but there's a good chance that it saved Joey Logano's life One reason NASCAR drivers have learned to live with the Car of Tomorrow -- the bigger, bulkier, harder-to-drive Car of Tomorrow -- is that, as a safety innovation, it has been an unqualified success.

Joey Logano's wreck at Dover yesterday, which saw him barrel-roll seven times across the track, was as scary and as violent as any I have ever seen. And the man inside walked away slightly shaken, but unharmed. It's drawing a lot of comparisons to Michael McDowell's wreck at Texas last season. Both unfolded in similar fashion. But I think a better case for the car's safety can be made by looking at Jeff Gordon's accident at Watkins Glen just last month. That was a hard, hard hit of another kind, and Gordon, too, walked away.

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