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NASCAR history says the opening weeks of a season set the stage for the rest of the year. If so, 2009 may be quite different than 2008


Remember Juan Pablo Montoya? Insiders say to keep an eye on him now that he's in a Chevy (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

    BRISTOL, Tenn.
   When it comes to surprises, this season so far has been filled with them, Jimmie Johnson says.
   And he concedes he's been one of them himself.
   And when it comes to disappointments, there have been others – like the Tommy Baldwin-Scott Riggs and Jeremy Mayfield-Tony Furr startup operations. Those two teams have now missed three straight races, and their Cinderella stories have turned back into pumpkins.
    On the other hand, how about David Gilliland! For a guy running for a rookie team owner with just a five-man crew, Gilliland is sitting an impressive 34th in the standings. Johnson has been impressed: "Those guys really are racers… and their acumen really means something.
    "I don't think I have really raced against them in the Rolex stuff (sports cars, where Gilliland's new owner, Kevin Buckler, has been making his living), but I have seen their equipment around for years, and they have always been competitive and dominant in whatever division they race in.
   "They came in to the Truck series and won, and now they are on the Cup side. They have a good core base…even though it isn't a lot of guys. They are really racers at heart, and out there doing what they can.
    "I have a lot of respect for what they are doing.
    "Today's world has hurt some teams and forced some mergers, but at the same time it has allowed other teams an opportunity to come into our sport.
    "It is nice to see some good things come out of the tough economy and the tough market we have right now."
    But Kurt Busch's sudden success this year hasn't surprised Johnson: "We saw him coming on the end of last year.
    "It is great to see Roger's team winning races and running up front, and Kurt. When he was in the Roush car, every time number  97 pulled on track you knew you were going to have your hands full.
    "They aren't necessarily a surprise. I saw it coming…I am not sure if anyone else did, but I saw it coming."
    The real surprise, Johnson says, is Tony Stewart's new team, even if teammate Ryan Newman is off to a ragged start.
   "What Tony has been able to do is extremely impressive…and shocking to me, for them to be where they are," Johnson says. "A lot has taken place in a short period of time for those guys.
    "Tony is doing a great job with it."
    But Johnson says he's been disappointed with Carl Edwards' runs so far: "I expected him to be a little faster on the 1-1/2-mile tracks….and probably Kyle Busch too, based on what we saw on these tracks early last year.
    "Even though Kyle did win at Las Vegas, I've expected to see those guys up there a little bit more."
   And Johnson says he too is disappointed with his own season so far: "I can't leave myself out of it. We have led some laps, but I have made mistakes, had some bad pit stops, strategy stuff has gone wrong.
    "We just need to clean up our act and put together a good race start to finish and get the finishes we should."

Michael Waltrip's good luck may be turning bad (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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