Five things we learned on a cold, winter-like Saturday night at Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte in race No. 5 of the 2009 Chase:
In what hardly can be described as a surprising development, Johnson -- the three-time defending champ, the best driver of his generation, the man who is quickly becoming the most clutch performer in NASCAR history -- is now in command of the Chase. On Saturday night he won his second straight race to increase his lead in the standings from 12 to 90 points over
What was most impressive about Johnson on Saturday night was that he won in spite of not having the fastest car. That distinction belonged to
We may have seen the key moment of the entire 2009 Chase unfold on lap 125 at Lowe's. On a re-start Montoya, who was directly in front of Martin, apparently checked up and slowed down a few moments after the green flag waved. This caused Martin to ram into the rear of Montoya, which damaged both cars and -- in an eye-blink -- changed the complexion of the Chase.
Montoya suffered the worst of the collision, because the bump pushed him into the rear of the car driven by
But of the two after the race, Martin was clearly the most upset. I tried talking to him after he lifted himself out of his car, but after a few terse words, he stormed away into the night, which is uncharacteristic of him. Thing is, it's easy to understand his frustration. After all, he's finished second in the final standings a record four times in his career. And before last night, it looked like this season would be his best shot to finally break through. Martin's Cup quest isn't dead yet, but his outlook suddenly looks a lot bleaker than it did on Saturday afternoon.
Things were supposed to improve for Little E after his owner
Early on Sunday morning, as Hendrick was leaving the track, I caught up to the most powerful man in NASCAR right now and asked him if Earnhardt and McGrew would be together in 2010. He didn't definitively say they would, but he strongly suggested it, which -- present circumstances notwithstanding -- I think is a smart move. It usually takes time for a driver and crew chief to develop chemistry, and even though Little E and McGrew are back-of-the-packers right now, they've shown flashes. They were fast at New Hampshire in the first Chase race and they looked poised to dominate at Kansas two weeks ago before they had a mechanical failure. In other words, even though Earnhardt appeared as emotionally down as he's been in years this weekend at the track, there is reason to believe that the future holds promise Earnhardt and McGrew.
For the first time in his career, Kenseth didn't make the Chase this fall. In fact, since winning the first two races of the 2009 season, he essentially disappeared. Well, he's back, which should bode well for his 2010 season. On Saturday he finished second, which was his second-straight top-five finish in the last four races. Said Kenseth, who had only two top-five runs in the last 24 regular season races, "Finishing the year strong would be good for all of our attitudes, especially mine, and hopefully we'll start next season strong."
To find out why, check back on Friday.