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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

5 Points to Ponder: Juggernaut Jimmie, Mediocre Montoya & “Eh, Not again” Earnhardt

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 fanbase. If Jimmie Johnson 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

Two weeks, two straight wins – one fortuitous and one not; it’s a good time to be a 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 Earnhardt 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 10th-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 Juan Pablo Montoya was hoping for after such a positive finish in 2009. Now 112 races into his Sprint Cup career, Montoya has just 12 top fives 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.