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Race Day: Things Will Go Bump In The Day

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
This will be a familiar site at Talladega Superspeedway this afternoon. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

This will be a familiar site at Talladega Superspeedway this afternoon. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday

Nobody bump drafts in open-wheel racing. Probably because if they did, there wouldn’t be anybody left with whom to bump draft by the end of the race as the entire field would be in the infield care center.

So, you would think that life-long open-wheeler Juan Pablo Montoya would be at a disadvantage in the AMP Energy 500 at Talladega Superspeedway today. And you would think the former Indy 500 winner and Formula One star would be battling the yips as the cars get ready to roll.

Well, no and no to you if that is what you would think.

The promises of bumping at 200 mph, of  blocking, of flying into fences, and of Big Ones bounces right off the cool Colombian, he of the omnipresent smirk.

Just another automobile race, he said this week.

“It’s really quiet for most of the day, then, it gets really out of control the last 30 laps,” Montoya said. “It is always exciting. It is always…about picking the right people to be in line with. It is key to have fast cars in your line and people that are willing to push and go to the front. It is important to be with people that aren’t going to do anything crazy, I would say stupid. I think that you just, it gets out of hand pretty easy here and there is always a fine line on how far you can go.”

But blocking, the type which resulted in the horrific wreck at the end of the spring race at Talladega, that must be pretty frustrating, right?

No, again.

“For me, it is not an issue. It is just part of racing. I never heard anybody complain about blocking. Most of the time when somebody blocks here, something bigger happens. When you block in an open wheel car, the guy behind you needs to lift, here, when you block, it is a little bit different.”

Fast facts

What: Amp Energy 500
Where: Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway
When: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
TV: ABC, noon ET
Radio: MRN/Sirius Satellite Ch. 128
Track layout: 2.66-mile superspeedway
Race distance: 188 laps/500 miles
Estimated pit window: 34-36 laps
Qualifying: Saturday, 12:15 p.m. ET
2008 winner: Tony Stewart
2008 polesitter: Travis Kvapil
2009 polesitter: Jimmie Johnson (based on points)
Points leaders: 1. Jimmie Johnson, 6,098; 2. Mark Martin, 5,980; 3. Jeff Gordon, 5,948; 4. Tony Stewart, 5,906; 5. Juan Pablo Montoya, 5,898; 6. Kurt Busch, 5,858; 7. Ryan Newman, 5,786; 8. Greg Biffle, 5,748; 9. Denny Hamlin, 5,746; 10. Carl Edwards, 5,685; 11. Kasey Kahne, 5,659; 12. Brian Vickers, 5,568.

Plate racing is a craft, some say. Here is how a couple of drivers rate themselves as plate racers:

Kurt Busch: “If I had to grade myself I would give myself a ‘B’. I’ve been close enough to finish second a bunch of times in Daytona and third a bunch of times here in Talladega. I can’t give myself an ‘A’ because I don’t have that victory that’s out there.”

Tony Stewart: “Well I’m not any happier about it than I’ve always been but we’ve had a lot of success at restrictor-plate tracks especially here. We’ve run in the top-two here a gazillion times I think now. I’m glad we’re half way decent at it but it’s still always frustrating when you have to rely on what everybody else does. It’s not what you do, it’s what you do and somebody else decides that they’re going to follow you and help you so that’s the part that’s disappointing as a driver at least from my standpoint.”

Race of champions

There have been five editions of the Chase format. And on three occasions — 2004, 2005 and 2006 — the points leader entering the AMP Energy 500 has failed to win the title.

Conversely, the points leader after Talladega — Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet) in 2007, Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) in 2005 and Kurt Busch (No. 2 Miller Lite Dodge) in 2004 — went on to become champion.

In the Chase era (2004-present), the points leader after six races has gone on to win the championship in two of the five Chases. Prior to the Chase’s inception, from 1975-2003, five drivers won the title after trailing with four races to go.

Johnson’s current lead of 118 points might appear comfortable but history suggests otherwise. Although Johnson has finished ninth and second in his past two AMP Energy 500 starts, the three-time champion’s overall record in the race isn’t good. Before his runner-up performance in 2007, Johnson failed to finish higher than 24th with four finishes of 31st or worse.

He finished 30th in Talladega’s Aaron’s 499 earlier this year. Talladega is his third-worst track for average finish (17.7) and Driver Rating (84.1) Ironically, Johnson is the only driver to win a championship in the Chase era with an AMP Energy 500 finish outside the top 10. He overcame a 24th-place performance in 2007.

Season recap

With four races remaining, there have been:
13 different race winners
10 different Coors Light Pole winners
42 drivers led at least one lap
35 drivers have scored at least one Top 10 this year
Average Margin of Victory of 1.138 seconds
16 races with an MOV under one second
Average of 10 leaders per race
Average of 19 lead changes per race
Average of 21 green flag passes for the lead all along the track
Average of 2,809 green-flag passes per race
53 percent of the cars finished on the lead lap
84 percent of the cars were running at the finish

Exclusive club

It’s been more than two years — 23 races — since a Chase race has been won by a driver not part of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.

The drought, extending to Greg Biffle’s (No. 16 3M/Filtrete Ford) Sept. 30, 2007 victory at Kansas Speedway, could end this week especially if past Talladega performances are considered.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 AMP Energy “Get on the 88”/National Guard Chevrolet) is one obvious candidate. So is Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota), Michael Waltrip (No. 55 NAPA Auto Parts Toyota) and 2009 Daytona 500 winner Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DeWalt Ford).

Earnhardt is a five-time Talladega winner three times capturing the AMP Energy 500. Busch won last spring’s Aaron’s 499 and finished fourth at Martinsville — his first top-five finish since Sept. 20.

Then there’s this spring’s surprise winner Brad Keselowski, who’ll drive the same No. 09 Miccosukee Indian Gaming & Resort Chevrolet. Two non-Chase drivers have won the Amp Energy 500: Brian Vickers (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) in 2006 and Dale Jarrett in 2005.

Trivia: What is the biggest point deficit made up over the final four races of a Cup season?

Juicy quotes

Mark Martin: “Talladega is the lotto. I used to think that if you took a fast car down there, you would be speedy enough to be ahead of the trouble, but that’s not the case anymore.”

Carl Edwards: “A year ago, I didn’t want to go there at all because I knew the potential for losing points. But right now, I know the potential for Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin and those guys to lose points. So greedily, I’m kind of hoping to go there and have things get mixed up and gain some points.”

Juan Pablo Montoya: “For a fan, it doesn’t get much better than that. I’ll tell you the truth I get a kick out of it. I always get a kick out of it.”

Parting ways

This week’s race will be the last for a Kyle Busch-Steve Addington driver-crew chief combination. Dave Rogers, current crew chief of Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 20 NASCAR Nationwide Series team which captured the series owner title in 2008, takes over at Texas Motor Speedway. Addington, who headed the team over five seasons (and backed Busch to 12 victories) will be assigned to another job in the JGR organization. “We hope … they can use the final three weeks of this season to begin working on communication and setups for the 2010 season,” said JGR President J.D. Gibbs.

Milestones

Today’s race is the 100th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race to be held in the state of Alabama. All but 20 of those races have been held at Talladega Superspeedway. Six other Alabama tracks held events from 1951 through 1968; the most recent at Montgomery Speedway, a .5-mile track. That race, was won by the NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Bobby Allison. Allison, from Hueytown, won four times at Talladega.

Kurt Busch will make his 325th start. Martin Truex (No. 1 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Chevrolet) will make his 125th.

Trivia answer:

In 1992, Alan Kulwicki made up 144 points on Bill Elliott to win the championship.

Up Next: Texas Motor Speedway

The Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup heads to Texas Motor Speedway for next Sunday’s Dickie’s 500 (ABC, 2:30 p.m.)

Carl Edwards won both spring and fall races at the track in 2009. Edwards has won three times at the 1.5-mile track, most by any driver.

There have been 17 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at the Fort Worth facility since 1997. TMS has hosted spring and fall races since 2005.

Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson won the Dickies 500 in 2007.

– Jim Pedley can be reached at jpedley@racintoday.com

Jim Pedley | Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, November 1 2009
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