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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Did You Notice? Jimmie Johnson’s Special Photo, Messing With Montoya, & David Gilliland?

Did You Notice? That the Sprint Cup Series can go to a fast, sleek intermediate track and have no mechanical failures in a 500-mile event – as was the case in Fontana this February – but then they go to a short track and have nearly half a dozen engines go south in one of the shortest races all year? In a 312-mile race, there were two engine failures and a handful of other cars that lost a cylinder at Phoenix; shockingly enough, that ties the record for most blown engines in any race so far in 2008. It’s almost like crews decided to use the shorter distance to take more chances and see how far their parts and pieces could push them; but at a track where the rpms come close to 10,000, maybe they pushed a little too far. Even the big guns were having trouble all night; Kyle Busch‘s car was among the more notable ones that hit the rev limiter virtually every time down the front straightaway on Saturday night.

Did You Notice? That Chip Ganassi’s first in what’s expected to be many changes to his three Cup programs messed with the one team that actually isn’t doing that badly – Juan Pablo Montoya. In the past seven races, Montoya’s come up with seven consecutive top-20 finishes to jump to 17th in the standings; but apparently, that consistency wasn’t enough to keep him aligned with crew chief Donnie Wingo, who jumps over the No. 41 team of Reed Sorenson in a crew chief swap. Montoya’s crew chief will now be Jimmy Elledge, who’s worked with Sorenson since he debuted in the No. 41 car at the beginning of 2006.

Unchanged was Ganassi’s third program with Dario Franchitti, which currently sits outside the Top 35 in owner points and – based on Daytona qualifying times – very vulnerable to a second DNQ in nine races at Talladega next week. So, let me get this straight; you keep your worst team intact, but messed with your best team and the chemistry of a driver whose communication with Wingo has been critical to Montoya adjusting to the language barrier challenge that was an initial struggle in his transition over to NASCAR.

Did You Notice? That every time a team begins the process of folding, they begin by saying they’re just taking a race off? BAM Racing took major strides in convincing everyone they were on just a two-week hiatus when the car didn’t show up at Texas this April; but all you need to do is look at past history to realize such actions are usually the beginning of the end, especially when it comes to giving up the all-important opportunity to climb within the Top 35 in owner points. On a side note, BAM driver Ken Schrader would be perfect for the Haas CNC Racing program right now; if the car itself has the speed to get into Talladega, Schrader’s still got the talent to mash the pedal to the metal at a restrictor-plate track.

Did You Notice? That Yates Racing driver David Gilliland has now scored consecutive top-15 finishes for the first time in his Sprint Cup career. Now in his third season, it took 59 starts for the driver of the No. 38 Ford to reach that rather routine plateau. To be honest, I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Should we be excited about the potential of Yates, which seems to be exceeding expectations with two cars solidly within the top 25 in points; or, should we be in awe that Gilliland still has a job after taking that long to produce what’s usually a basic requirement to last beyond your rookie season?

On a side note, both Gilliland and Travis Kvapil have gone out of their way to state how their teams continue to be on solid financial ground. But on some level, I wonder how that’s possible; with the costs of running Cup teams these days reaching the tens of millions of dollars, how can you be unsponsored for as many races as they are and not be hurting in the pocketbook? Is the Yates family really that financially endowed? I know they’re receiving help from Ford and Roush; but you wonder how much longer both teams can stay afloat with nothing but white space on the sides of their cars.

Did You Notice? That it’s paying to start up front these days. Every one of the season’s first eight races has been won by a driver who qualified inside the top 10; in fact, the average start of a race winner this year is an eye-popping 5.4. When’s the last time we started a season that way? You’d have to go all the way back to 1997; the first nine races of that year were won by cars qualifying ninth or better before Mark Martin won Talladega from the 18th starting spot.

But strangely enough, not a single one of those wins has come from a driver who’s won the pole. No driver has won from the top spot since Clint Bowyer did it at Loudon last September, a span of 17 races; and you have to back to 2005 to find the last time polesitters were shut out for this long.

What do these stats tell us? That when drivers are telling us it’s difficult to pass with the Car of Tomorrow, they know what they’re talking about; and that more than ever, track position is key to winning races these days, even from the drop of the green flag.

Did You Notice? That Nick Lachey came to the track with a t-shirt that has Jimmie Johnson‘s senior photo from high school on it? A friend of Johnson’s, Lachey was at Phoenix to cheer on his good buddy – and poke a little fun of him in the process.

“A friend brought that out for my birthday last year; I never thought I’d see the shirt again,” said Johnson Saturday night. “Then, Nick showed up with it again today. That’s going to haunt me for a long time (laughs).”

Well, considering that joke got played on a day Johnson went to victory lane, I’m betting he’s not all that upset about the way in which things went down. And on a side note; while Lachey was around, a surprising no-show were the lovely ladies he’d recently entertained at good friend Matt Leinart’s place nearby, igniting a media firestorm in the immediate Phoenix vicinity. Now that’s the most disappointing observation of all, or lack thereof.

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