The Frontstretch: Five Points To Ponder: Juggernaut Jimmie, Mediocre Montoya, and "Eh, Not again" Earnhardt by Danny Peters -- Tuesday March 2, 2010

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It wasn’t exactly the greatest race this past Sunday in Vegas, and a quick glance at Matt McLaughlin’s fantastic recap highlights this point graphically, with all his usual aplomb. A rating of just one, out of a possible six, was in my opinion about right in a race that for long stretches lacked any real excitement. It’s a shame, all told, that we’ve had such a so-so start to the season, between pothole-gate and back-to-back wins from a four-time Champ that’s increasingly unpopular with NASCAR’s fan base. If Jimmie J continues to destroy the field with such apparent ease – not to mention a healthy dollop of luck, we might not even need a Chase, as he’ll be so far ahead with all the bonus points he’s already accrued. The relentless, unending dominance of Jimmie J is where we’ll start this week’s edition of Five Points to Ponder…

Point Number 1: Uh-oh, that No. 48 is looking mighty racy.

The Lowe’s Victory Lane dance has become frighteningly familiar… don’t you think?

Two weeks, two straight wins – one fortuitous and one not; it’s a good time to be a Jimmie Johnson fan for both of you, that’s for sure. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) The point is, Johnson has started very strongly, and when you do that as the reigning four-time champ – people take notice. For the statistically inclined, it took 13 races in 2009 for Johnson to win two and 20 races in 2008. He did win early season back-to-back races in Las Vegas and Atlanta in 2007, and given how he runs at the venerable old Georgian cookie-cutter, don’t be surprised if he makes it three for three next week. You might not like Johnson’s success, but it’s hard to begrudge him. Simply put, the No. 48 team is that perfect and an extremely dangerous combination of know-how, ability, and experience. Short of forcing him to drive around with a 500-pound concrete block in the back of his car, it’s hard to see how his fellow title aspirants can knock him off his lofty perch. As I said: “Uh-oh.”

Point Number 2: RCR rebounding very nicely in 2010

After a disastrous year in 2009, Richard Childress Racing appears to have rebounded in almost the best possible fashion, with only a lack of a trip to Victory Lane preventing them from a perfect start to the season. With the ill-fated four car experiment well and truly behind them, it’s clear the good folks at RCR have worked their proverbial fingers to the bone these past couple of months. And now, at this point the on-track results are there for all to see. In nine total attempts on three very different tracks, the results have been exceptional:

Harvick: 7th, 2nd, 2nd; 1st in points
Bowyer: 4th, 8th, 8th; 2nd in points
Burton: 11th, 3rd, 11th; 7th in points

The next step now is for an RCR car to make it all the way to Victory Lane. Given the way they’ve been running (and if someone can kidnap Jimmie) that might just happen at Atlanta.

Point Number 3: More of the same mediocrity for the No. 88

I think it’s fair to say all that residual good momentum Dale Jr. generated from that frenetic charge on the final lap of the Daytona 500 is now well and truly consigned to the garbage can marked “past history.” With that said, a 32nd place at Fontana can, to some extent, be explained away. Junior typically sucks at Fontana but statistically, Las Vegas is not a bad track for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. After a fourth place run in qualification, much was expected – not the least from the green-clad masses who pack the stands week-in, week-out in support of their hero. The resulting 16th place was just a little disappointing for them, to say the least.

Team owner Rick Hendrick remains optimistic, but already he’s inserting a note of caution. “It seems like every time the car’s good, the pit crew screws up….If the pit crew’s good, something breaks on the car. I think they’ve made a ton of improvement and will have a really good year.”

Let’s hope so – the sport needs a successful Junior. There are enough problems as it is.

Point Number 4: Montoya struggles through a sticky start.

The ubiquitous twitterer was appropriately brief (as really has to be the case with just 140 characters) when he commented post-race, “Had a horrible day today, we just got to move on…”

You could just remove “today” and insert 2010, to be fair.

A tenth place run in the Great American race was an acceptable start, but two straight 37th place performances – including being taken out by teammate Jamie McMurray on Sunday, was not exactly what Montoya was hoping for after such a positive finish in 2009. Now 112 races into his Sprint Cup career, Montoya has just 12 top 5s and 28 top 10s (18 of which came in 2009) and an average finish of 20.6. To some extent, those numbers are skewed by the fact he was very much learning his NASCAR craft in 2007 and 2008, but this was the year Montoya was supposed to kick on, win races, and run up front. It’s ridiculously early to say he won’t, but he needs a good run at Atlanta this weekend to get things moving in the right direction. The only smidgeon of good news in his camp, in fact, is that Montoya’s not the only one struggling. Just ask Ryan Newman, Kasey Kahne or Marcos Ambrose…

Point Number 5: Not the start to the season NASCAR wanted….

It would not be an exaggeration to say 2010 is a critical season for the sport, held in the wake of falling attendance, sagging TV ratings and, at times, excruciatingly dull racing in 2009. To the governing body’s credit, they’ve made a number of changes in the past months to rectify some of these issues. But all will be for naught if we don’t get a few weeks of positive momentum. Of course, two off weeks in the next five doesn’t help, and it’s beyond me why we need two “empty” Sundays in such quick succession. The pothole fiasco was something no one could really have predicted, but two straight wins for the Champ has dampened post-Daytona excitement – big time. The good news, however, is that Atlanta, Bristol, and Martinsville should produce some exciting racing. If we end up with a couple of snoozers or 2 to 3 more wins for the unstoppable No. 48 team in the upcoming weeks, then we could really be in for some serious problems, though.

So to all those drivers not named Jimmie Johnson – now is truly the time to stand up and be counted.

Contact Danny Peters

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Today on the Frontstretch:
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03/02/2010 06:26 AM

Let’s stop blaming the 48 for the demise of NASCAR. Last I checked, there were 42 teams running on the same track on the same weekend. As good as Jimmie is, he can’t win the races, AND make them interesting AND change the car AND cahnge the schedule AND change teh points system. In fact the only thing in his controll is to win races. And that’s what he’s doing.

Was the sport ruined when Petty won 200 races? How about when Dale won 7 championships?

The fact is that the competition is weak. Don’t blame someone for doing their job well. Let’s check off the goals as the 48 team accomplished them:

Win the 600 – check
Win the 500 – check
Win the All-Star Race – check
Win the Brickyard – check
Win a Championship – check (x4)
Win EVERYTHING in a weekend, practice, practice, qualifying, and race – check

What’s next? Perhaps their goal this year is to win 20 races.

Some of us enjoy watching racing at its highest level. And sure there are problems with NASCAR – but Jimmie Johnson doesn’t run NASCAR, he just runs faster than everyone else IN NASCAR.

03/02/2010 07:07 AM

I don’t see Montoya repeating into the Chase in 2010. Running 10th-15th each week can get you in – as he proved last year, but it won’t climb you out of the deficit he’s in now.

Just as Montoya failed to turn the heat up in the 2009 Chase, he could very well fail to rebound into the chase in 2010.

03/02/2010 08:36 AM

The only thing that bothers me about 48 winning is having to read all the BS from DansMom all week!! I am now trying to train myself to scroll right past anything I see the name on….

03/02/2010 09:37 AM

DansMom supports her driver,It’s a good thing.That said,If not Dale Jr.,GO JIMMIE!!

Carl D.
03/02/2010 10:51 AM

Today DansMom is right… the competition is weak. And you can’t blame Jimmie and Chad for being better than everyone else. As long as they play by the rules (or don’t get caught cheating), it’s up to the 42 other teams to find a way to beat them. I agree that it’s not good for the sport… any sport… for one team to dominate year after year, but that’s Nascar’s problem, not Jimmie’s and not Chad’s.

03/02/2010 10:55 AM

It was once said that “doing the same thing over and over expecting a diff. results is the definition of insanity” watching the JJ show presented by Nascar IS INSANE.

03/02/2010 12:02 PM

Yea, I was kind of wondering why there are two Sunday’s off in the next five weeks. Makes no sense. No momentum and two Sundaya off in a five week period = fans losing even more interest.

larry hryciw
03/02/2010 12:35 PM

junior needs to get rid of the ugly hair on his face and get a girl friend then all will be well and he will start winning again

Stephen HOOD
03/02/2010 05:40 PM

Last year Junior sat in 28th after the third race. This year he’s in 16th. There is still reason for optimism. I know it’s not the top 5, but he’s got some favorable tracks upcoming. I don’t expect Junior to compete for the championship, but I’d like to see him win a time or two each year. For all the “here we go again Junior” press, what’s up with Kyle Busch? He’s finished 15, 16, and 15 for an average finish of “15.” Heck, Junior’s average finish is 16. Why isn’t anyone decrying Busch for his lack of focus or note the fact that the his teammate “sophomore slumping Logano” is streaking with a couple of top 10s? I guess Kyle is excused for underperformance because Johnson challenger Denny “I mostly win on flat tracks” Hamlin is off to a horrible start. I guess Hamlin can take comfort in the fact that the Penske #22 is really sucking air.

I don’t think Johnson is killing NASCAR. I think there are a few tracks killing NASCAR and I think the car may be killing NASCAR. Americans don’t like soccer, and the last two races were like watching soccer. The Nationwide series is putting on a better show, but its probably because the drivers keep hitting the wall and bunching the field back up. When the lead car laps the 20th place car, NASCAR ought to throw a caution just to give the fans a show.

03/02/2010 07:09 PM

As far as the two breaks in short sucession go… it is better than 2005-2007 when the first three weeks were Daytona, Fontana, break. In 2005 that meant two races, break, two races, break.

Keep in mind that one of the breaks is for Easter, which is set in stone. The problem becomes what to do with the other break.

The only period in recent times that didn’t have breaks in March and April was 20001-2004, when there was a week off before the all-star race in Charlotte. That, of course, mean two consecutive weeks without a points race.

The only place I could see moving the break that would really make sense would be to have it so there’s a weekend off before the Chase begins.

03/02/2010 07:18 PM

To put on a better show, NASCAR should give Martinsville, Richmond, and Bristol an extra date, and eliminate so many of the cookie cutter tracks.

03/02/2010 07:23 PM

If more cautions are needed for better racing (to bunch teh field back up), then Michael Waltrip should come back to racing. He was good for at least 2 cautions a race.

03/02/2010 08:21 PM

Congratulations DansMom. It’s always nice to see a fan get on the bandwagon just in time. Given NA$CAR’s love of orchestration I’m sure you’ll have a long time to sing the same old song.
If NA$CAR really wants close competition in short order, then they need to allow testing. Not all teams have access to the kind of high tech, off track facilities that Hendrick has (thanks Haas). If they really want teams to be able to make this POS COT work then they need more than race weekend track time or Goodyear “tire tests” for the fortunate few.

Richard Petersen
03/02/2010 09:17 PM

Dale Jr and Lance McGrew are just not on the same page is what I have noticed. And If Dale Jr is doing well this year, why did he get lapped by 2 of his teammates Sunday? why did he start 4th…never led a lap…fell further back as the race ended, and just stander where he was? Yea probably the only think i saw good was the last lap charge at Daytona. Some improvement. I hope to god JR goes to RCR.

As for our 4 time Champ Jimmie Johnson, this guy is just getting on my nerves. there are 42 other drivers out ther that would love to win too and it seems he is the only one that can win. It gets old watching a race knowing who will win. Give it a rest Jimmie, your ruining NASCAR. Give some others a chance to win a Championship for once.

03/02/2010 10:31 PM

Dick Cockerson –

Don’t you think those other 42 guys are trying to win? too bad they can’t

03/03/2010 01:21 AM

I don’t think 42 others don’t want to win, it’s just that few have the elite resources to develop this POS COT. Bring back testing, then we’ll see.

Kevin in SoCal
03/03/2010 01:05 PM

If Kyle Busch wants to win a few fans, he can nudge Johnson into the wall a couple times. I’m sure Sam Hornish gained a few fans when he did that last year.

The only way to get a break before the Chase is to have the last race (Richmond) on Labor Day weekend. 10 weeks before Thanksgiving puts the schedule right up to Labor Day, so there isnt any room there.

03/03/2010 03:50 PM

All of JR Nation is wondering if this is THE year for JR to compete for the crown, or just another underachieveing year.
HMS was supposed to put more resources at the disposal of the #88 team. Well, if they have, I don’t see it.
The other 3 teams seem to qualify well, run well early and finish well .. at least better than the #88 team.
I’m not sure if it’s JR NOT knowing what is happening with his car towards the end of the race, NOT be able to communicate to his crew chief, or his crew chief NOT knowing what to do, or all of the above.
This is really frustrating for those of us that believe the JR is going to be able to follow in ‘some’ of his dad’s footsteps. We can’t seem to believe that Jimmy Johnson is that much better of a pure driver.

Opinions always welcome. 8^)

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