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Is this Juan Pablo Montoya's week, finally? "I don't like this place; it's not like anything else we do." But he's fast

  JPM: Closer and closer (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Kevin Harvick's Talladega win, the pending loss of his sponsor Shell, and Kasey Kahne's decision to move to the Rick Hendrick camp next season, with sponsor Budweiser now up in the air, plus a lot of other odds-and-ends swirling through the NASCAR garage, are putting a number of possible 2011 scenarios into play...in the rumor mill at least.
   -- Will Budweiser jump to the Richard Childress camp for next season, possibly with driver Clint Bowyer, or Harvick?
   -- Now that Harvick has lost some leverage, with the loss of Shell, what options does he really have...and are any any better than right where he's at?
   -- Will Juan Pablo Montoya's strong showings lately be a boon for car owner Chip Ganassi, who may be able to lure Mobil as sponsor?
   Meanwhile questions are now swirling around the Red Bull team, but GM Jay Frye says there's nothing to them, that Brian Vickers will be back in 2011, that sponsor/owner Red Bull (Dietrich Mateschitz) will remain sponsor and owner....though Frye concedes Scott Speed's situation is still up in the air.
   Two things that aren't up in the air: that new contract crew chief Alan Gustafson just signed with car owner Rick Hendrick, for four more years, and that new contract that crew chief Chad Knaus just signed too, for five years.

  Heath Calhoun, the Army veteran whose name is on the Richmond 400: He lost both legs in Iraq in 2003 when hit by an RPG, but Calhoun (30, from Clarksville, Tn) is now an accomplished skier. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

And Gustafson plans to remain with his number five car team? "I believe in number five," Mark Martin's crew chief says. "I have been here for 11 years. It is something I have put a lot of effort into. I take a lot of pride in that team.
     "I have been with those guys for a long time; I want to be with them for a long time in the future.
     "But who knows where it is going to go, or where the future goes. I am going to do whatever I have to do to help keep this company successful.
    "My goal right now is to win a championship with the five."
    If that's not with Martin, whose driving contract runs through 2011, then maybe with Kasey Kahne, who is to join the team in 2012.
   Knaus has a goal too – to hang in there on top of the race day pit box five more years: "In five more years of crew-chiefing I'm pretty sure I'll be about done. Crew chief years are about like dog years; so I'm thinking I'm about 97 years old. I don't think I can go much more after that." Knaus' new contract matches the length of the contract Jimmie Johnson has signed.
    Knaus, who has been working for Hendrick since 1993, has perhaps one of his tougher chores right now, keeping harmony within his part of the Hendrick operation while his driver, Johnson, and his teammate Jeff Gordon, are bickering. The Johnson-Gordon teams work out of the same shop. Is the Johnson-Gordon tiff affecting the teams? "People are emotional," Knaus says. "This is an emotional industry...and when you race for 500 miles, you can tend to say things that maybe you don't want to. Everybody says stuff they don't want to from time to time."

   The Johnson-Gordon tiff is naturally prime fodder in the NASCAR garage.  But, from the outside, and with a glance at NASCAR History, somewhere in the Dale Earnhardt Chapter, it would appear that Gordon is purposely trying to work on Johnson's head. Whether or not that works....well, Johnson has won 17 times the past two years, while Gordon has won but once, so it makes sense for Gordon to try to change the playing field if he can.
   Clint Bowyer says he'd like to try to aggravate Johnson too:  "Seeing a little attitude in Jeff Gordon is good. That cat has been around this sport a long time and he's sick of Jimmie Johnson stealing everybody's thunder, just like everybody else.
   " But hey, man, you can’t knock him. The man has done a hell of a good job. He has won four championships in a row, and it is hard is hard to knock a guy like that off of his focus. He is pretty good.
   " Might try though. I think everybody has tried.
   "It is just that they can't get to him.
   "You can't run into something you can't catch."
    Jeff Burton puts it all this way: "Every driver has had a situation where they've had a run-in with their teammate.  It's inevitable.  This is a competitive business. 
    "We ask a lot of teammates -- We ask our teammates to help you beat them...and that's hard to do.
    "This is a self-serving sport, but at the same time you're asking people to work together in the best interests...and it's kind of contradicting.  It's a tough thing as teammates to do. 
    "It takes a little tension away from the situation if you can handle it behind the scenes.  Sometimes you can't.  Sometimes things come out, or things are seen. 
     "After the race at Texas, you couldn't help but see that, so you knew there was an issue. 
    "I think the best way to handle it is to go right at it, discuss it as soon as possible. Monday is better than discussing it on Sunday, because the emotions are too high on Sunday.
     "We've all been in that situation. I've handled it well in some cases, and in other cases I haven't."


  Crew Lance McGrew ponders what to do next with Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car for the 400. It's been four years since Earnhardt's last kick-ass heads up Cup tour victory, right here in the spring of 2006 (His Michigan win in the summer of 2008 was in a gas-mileage gamble.) (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   One of Saturday night's favorites, Denny Hamlin, has won two of the last four tour events, and had a shot to win Talladega. He won Martinsville with a dramatic late charge. What does the hometown hero think about Saturday night's 'Heath Calhoun 400'?
      "This one's a little bit harder," Hamlin says.  "This is not not like Martinsville, where you see Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson) and Denny Hamlin every time.
    "This one, there are always some other guys sprinkled in there...some guys like Kurt Busch and Mark Martin.
      "It's just a little bit tougher here. I don't know why.
    "I'm just not as good at it as I am at Martinsville. 
    "Before we got our first win in the fall, every time I came here I was very nervous.  For practice I was extremely nervous.  Qualifying, extremely nervous. 
     "This time I'm just way more relaxed."
    And what about Hamlin's knee? He's recovering from knee surgery four weeks ago.
     "It's taken big leaps," Hamlin says.
    "I can almost walk pretty much normal.
    "I didn't think it would be this far into it that I would still feel the effects, but obviously I am. 
     "It's not affecting on-track performance; it hampers everyday life, but nothing here on the track.
     "This will be not as bad as Phoenix on it, but it will definitely be much harder than where we've been the last two or three weeks (Texas and Talladega).
     "I will be interested to see what kind of pressure I can put on the brake here at Richmond."
     At this flat three-quarter-mile, the first turn is the toughest for braking, drivers having to slow from 154 mph to 92 mph in 657 feet, over 3-1/2 seconds.

           The 30 fastest Sprint Cup drivers in Friday's final round of practice for Saturday's impound 400



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   Kevin Harvick: Pondering his future (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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