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Aggressive Montoya could spoil the Chase for unlucky drivers

That season, Stewart played the spoiler in the playoff, reaching Victory Lane three times and posting two more top 5s. Smoke stole valuable points from the Chasers and played a pivotal role in helping Jimmie Johnson win the first of his four consecutive titles as he finished ahead of second-place Matt Kenseth five times.

Stewart may have been the most prolific party crasher in '06, but he wasn't the only one to win who wasn't on the guest list: Five of that season's Chase races were won by drivers who failed to qualify for the playoff.*

*It is worth noting, that was before the field was expanded to 12 drivers and Stewart and Greg Biffle, who also won a Chase race, would have made the cut by today's rules.

That postseason was certainly an abnormality since non-Chasers have never won that many races before or since, but it's bound to happen at least once or twice. In the history of the 10-race playoff, 20 percent of the events have gone to drivers who weren't in the running for the title.

So which Chase outsider could spoil the party this season?

Could be Jamie McMurray. Mr. Big Race's inconsistency has kept him out of the playoff, but he has a win and two second-place finishes on two of the final tracks in the last year (Talladega, Charlotte) and he was on the pole at another (Fontana). It also could be Kasey Kahne or Ryan Newman, who have six and five wins, respectively, on upcoming tracks or Mark Martin, who's mere experience makes him a threat. But the driver the Racing Fan is pegging as this year's Party Crasher?

Juan Pablo Montoya.

The Colombian's recent surge was too-little-too late for his Chase chances, but he's heating up at exactly the right time to spoil the party. He's rattled off five straight top 10s and also has three finishes within the top six this season at playoff tracks (Talladega, Phoenix and Richmond).

Trends are good, but dispositions are better, and JPM no longer has to play it safe, which means he'll be back to his aggressive self. That could result in him crashing out of three or four, or maybe more, of the next 10 races, possibly causing havoc for playoff participants. Remember his rookie year when he finished in the top 10 twice and qualified within the top three spots three times as a Chase outsider? We could see a similar finish out of JPM this season.

A nasty Montoya is a dangerous Montoya, and with nothing but pride to race for, the gloves will clearly be coming off.

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Chase field, you've been warned.

2. Junior Nation was no doubt beside itself watching Dale Earnhardt Jr. limp to a 32nd-place finish at Richmond, six laps behind winner Denny Hamlin. But, there may be a small positive amid that dreadful run.

As Junior told Scene Daily's Bob Pockrass, he and crew chief Lance McGrew were experimenting with a new setup that ultimately blew up in their faces.

"It was one of our worst performances," Earnhardt Jr. said. "We were trying something new, and it just didn't work out. We'll keep working at it. I don't think it's something we're going to give up on."

It didn't work. So where's the positive? They tried. Look, the No. 88 team could easily limp toward Homestead knowing it can put a car on the track that can produce average runs or it can try to get creative and see if it can't find something that works.

For all the dissecting of the communication, or lack thereof, between Earnhardt Jr. and the man atop his pit box, this was, at the least, tangible proof that they're committed to working together to think outside the box.

It's not much, but given Junior's season, it's one of the small positives in recent weeks.

6: Chase drivers who have yet to win a pole in '10 (Biffle, Burton, Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Clint Bowyer).

5: Winless drivers in this Chase (Bowyer, Burton, Gordon , Kenseth and Carl Edwards).

2: Playoff drivers without a DNF this season (Burton and Kenseth).

Denny Hamlin. What? With all this playoff talk, where's my Chase pick? You can see all of the expert picks here. As for the first of those final 10 races, I'm taking the driver who may or may not be my pick to end Jimmie Johnson's streak. Hamlin has admitted he's already been running with a Chase mindset for two weeks, and he's run well in New Hampshire, with six finishes of ninth or better in nine career races. You may want to keep an eye on J.J. as well; he last finished outside the top nine in New England in September '06.