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:
1. Jimmie Johnson has seized control.
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 Mark Martin (more on him in a moment). If Johnson can simply maintain this lead over the next two weeks when the circuit stops at Martinsville (Va.) Speedway and Talladega (Al.) Superspeedway, he'll be your 2009 champion. To read more about the minefields that Johnson will need to dodge in the next two races, check out my story in the magazine this week.
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 Kasey Kahne, who wound up third. But during a late pit stop Kahne's crew didn't get all the lug nuts tightened on one of his wheel, and this gaffe caused Kahne to experience handling problems over the final laps. In Chase races, Johnson and his crew simply don't make these types of careless mistakes. And this, more than anything, is the fundamental reason why this driver and this team are poised to make history in five weeks and win their four straight Cup championship.
2. Mark Martin and Juan Pablo Montoya had rough nights.
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 Clint Bowyer, which wounded the nose of Montoya's No. 42 Chevy. Montoya finished 35th while Martin and his No. 5 Chevy, which suffered a puncture in its grille, came in 17th. Martin still has a shot at the title; Montoya, now 195 points out of first, doesn't.
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.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is still struggling -- royally.
Things were supposed to improve for Little E after his owner Rick Hendrick replaced Tony Eury Jr. as his crew chief with Lance McGrew. Eury's last race with Earnhardt was at Charlotte in May, a forgettable weekend during which the two cousins rarely talked and Earnhardt finished 40th. Well, not much has changed for the No. 88 team. Earnhardt struggled in qualifying (he started 39th), struggled in practice, then struggled in the race. He ran in the back of the pack before his transmission blew and finished 38th.
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.
4. Matt Kenseth is coming on.
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."
5. Mark Martin is going to win next Sunday at Martinsville, where he has only two wins in 43 career starts.
To find out why, check back on Friday.