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Wrapping up the Brickyard 400, with idle musings.....

  Jimmie Johnson and his crew kiss the bricks (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


  The odds on this year's NASCAR championship are shaping up quite clearly, and Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin and Tony Stewart, who swept the top three spots in Sunday's Brickyard 400 are looking really strong.
    Johnson's rally from a slow start to the weekend, and a slow start to the race itself, was classic Johnson and Chad Knaus.
    Martin's workmanship effort was once again brilliant, championship-caliber.
   And Stewart, though he didn't have quite enough to battle for the win, came out still atop the Sprint Cup standings, continuing his own impressive season-long charge.
   Seven of the last 11 champions having also won this event, and that's a good indication of what to expect the rest of this season too, since Indianapolis Motor Speedway is such a difficult and technical track to handle – it's very flat, the straights are very long and very fast, and the corners are four different flat left-handers. Teams that get a handle on this place, at this point of the season, clearly have their act together.
   So what to make of Juan Pablo Montoya's brilliant performance, leading 116 of the 160 laps, until that costly pit road speeding penalty? Does Montoya's run mean that the Chip Ganassi team will be a factor over the last half of the season? Montoya held an easy five-second lead on the field most of the afternoon.
   And what to make of Greg Biffle's good run, then? And to make of teammate Carl Edwards' struggles? Edwards is in the top-12 and should make the playoff cut; Biffle is trying to charge into the playoffs. But both teams have been plagued with inconsistency this season.
   The crowd for the 400 was off considerably, maybe 180,000 at a track that can hold 280,000.
   And TV ratings, when they come out later this week, will be closely watched. This was ESPN's first Cup race of the second half of the season, and it follows a weak 3.0 rating by TNT for the Chicago race two weeks ago.
   On top of that, NASCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Monday lost Allstate as sponsor of the Brickyard 400, after a five-year run. DeWalt, a 10-year NASCAR sponsor with Jack Roush and Matt Kenseth, announced last week it would not be renewing that sponsorship.
   Not that Johnson started the day very well….
   "It was just very tough to come through the field," Johnson says. "We started 16th, fell into fifth for a while, got to fourth, then to third.
   "At the end, with Juan having his problems, the caution coming out, it gave me a chance to really race with Mark on the restart. 
    "That was really my only opportunity (the restart). Maybe after one or two laps things evened out and you really didn't have an opportunity to pass. So I did everything I could on that restart.
    "It worked out; I cleared him.
   "At the end he was coming a little on me. Got a little loose in one and two, but the car was really good in three and four."
   So it was the two Rick Hendrick teammates battling for the win, in what has been a Hendrick season.
   And Martin, starting from the pole, looking for what would have been his fifth win of the season, worked closely with Johnson and Knaus on setups for the 400 over the weekend.
    "I'm very proud of his effort, what that team has accomplished," Johnson said.

   Rick Hendrick's teams are dominating the season...but it was Juan Pablo Montoya in Chip Ganassi's car bidding for Sunday's surprise (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    For Johnson the month of August has typically been a down one; so will this 400 win be a launch pad for a better run into the playoffs?
   "We've been very fast, led a lot of laps the last couple months, but haven't been able to be in the right spot at the end," Johnson says.
    "It's been a little frustrating.
     "But we've been happy with our performance.
    "We were talking about this before we came to the track -- that it's good and bad that we've been under the radar.
    "We've led a lot of laps. The last five or six races I think we've led the most laps….just not the one at the end that counted.
     "So it has been quiet. But that is good because it allows us to focus, and not get caught up in all the energy around winning races and leading the points.
     "But we know it's coming, we know the chase is coming. We're buckled down and ready."
    Knaus pointed to Jeff Andrews' engine department as a big part of Sunday's run: "We had a fantastic engine; it was really good on restarts. You could see it.
    "You could see it when Jimmie was able to get under people coming down straightaways.
    "And it was the first race for this car actually, as well. A great way to break it in, for sure."
   The pace of the race, as dominant as Montoya ran, was rather boring most of the first two hours. "The race went actually how we anticipated," Knaus said. "We thought we were going to have a lot of green flag runs.
    "The field gets spread out here typically.
    "So green flag pit stops started to be really, really important."
    Certainly. Just ask Montoya.

   Side by Side: Mark Martin inside, Jimmie Johnson making his move to the outside (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    So Jimmie Johnson, says teammate Mark Martin, is 'Superman.'
   "I don't know what to call him -- Bionic Man or something," Johnson responded.
   Certainly it looks like Martin has added a new dimension to the already awesome Hendrick operation. Not just another winning car, not just another championship-caliber team, but also a new spirit.
    That's the way Johnson sees Martin: "The way he is, what he asks of his team, the way he interacts, his dedication, it's contagious.
    "It brings out the best of all of us.
    "I can see Jeff Gordon, me, Dale Earnhardt Jr., all of us looking at ourselves in the mirror -- doing a better job, pushing ourselves harder," Johnson says.
   "Just look at Mark -- the guy is non stop.
   "He is one unique individual.
    "I think he's almost happy too. He's getting there. 
    "Scary, right?"
   Johnson laughed, because for years Martin has been a down-sort of guy when things aren't going right, and sometimes even when they are. But lately he's been quite upbeat.
   That could add a dimension to his title hopes.
   "Jimmie said it -- he's phenomenal, I don't know any other word for it," team owner Rick Hendrick says of Martin.
    "You look at this year -- what he's done -- he's energized all of us.
    "I would love to have had him 10 years ago."


   Juan Pablo Montoya could be a threat for the Sprint Cup title, Jimmie Johnson says (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And then there's Dale Earnhardt Jr., who just can't seem to get a break this season.
   He battled a stomach flu much of the weekend, ran strong in the 400…but had engine trouble and finished far back.
   It hasn't really been much of a season for Earnhardt, despite all his hard work.
   Team owner rick Hendrick's take on Earnhardt and his team?
    "I can tell you those guys are really working hard…and Junior is putting forth a ton of effort," Hendrick says. "I can see it -- he and Lance (McGrew, his crew chief) are really working well together.
    "It seems like if they get good momentum, something happens…a caution at the wrong time…
   "This race, the way he qualified, as sick as he was…I had no idea he could run that race, and run as well as he did.
   "I feel those guys have turned the corner. And, really, the chemistry is good.
    It's a tough deal out there. You've got guys who won a lot of races last year that haven't won races this year (like Carl Edwards).
   "But Junior just has a big spotlight on him.
    "I'll tell you we're not happy with the way the car has run. But I am very happy with the chemistry and what's happening right now. 
    "I think we're just getting very, very close.
     "For anybody that says he's not working hard, you can ask these guys -- because he's putting in the effort, in the gym, doing everything anybody asks of him.
    "But it's just a tough, tough hill to climb out."


Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- focused, working hard, just needs a couple of good breaks, and a respite from this rash of bad luck (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Jimmie Johnson is clearly in the championship hunt this season, moving up to second in the race to the playoffs with Sunday's 400 win, at Juan Pablo Montoya's expense.
   But what of Montoya's own shot at the title?
   After a fairly slow 2008, after that Sonoma debut win in the summer of 2007, Montoya has been strong most of 2009.
   And Sunday's performance in the Brickyard 400 was easily the best of his short NASCAR career.
   Montoya may well make the chase; he's 10th with six races till the September cut.
   How does Johnson, a three-time champ going a fourth, size up the Colombian?
   He says if Montoya had taken the win he would have gone to victory lane to congratulate him.
   "That would have been an amazing story," Johnson said.
    "Those guys were quick all day long. Really at every practice session and in qualifying.
    "Not only is that team getting better, but racing with Juan on the track, the guy is really a great talent.
    "If you look at guys that have come from the open wheel world, he's by far done better than anyone.
    "He's becoming a stock car driver.
    "It's got to be tough to forget everything that's brought you to this level, all you've built your success on, to forget all that and start over.
    "He's jumped into this thing head-first. He's committed himself to doing a great job. 
    "That team is getting stronger. I think we'll see a lot more of Juan.
    "I see him making the chase, and I see him being a threat.
    "He's doing an amazing job."


   Kyle Busch blew a right-front tire and may have knocked himself out of the championship chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    So in the end, Goodyear's tires did the job.
   And Jimmie Johnson won again.
   Last year Johnson won on a day when NASCAR had to throw cautions every 10 laps for worn-out tires.
   This year Johnson went the final 90 miles without having to stop.
    Tires here were no issue Sunday. And Goodyear's Greg Stucker says some of the tricks learning during the 14,000 miles of tire testing for this 400 over the past 10 months may be used at other tracks too.
    "Obviously it's two completely different story lines," winning crew chief Chad Knaus says of last year's 400 and this one.
    "Last year was a bad situation. Everybody needs to realize that, while everybody put a big finger on Goodyear, saying that was their fault last year, ultimately it wasn't.
    "The testing was limited last year. We did the test for them, but there was rain, so it wasn't a very good test.
     "They were put behind a big eight-ball coming up here (last year, with the new car-of-tomorrow, and all its problems).  To come up here cold turkey, expect them to develop and have a tire prepared to race at a track like this -- as coarse as the surface is -- it wasn't fair to them.
   "We've got to realize what a great job they did getting everything squared away."
   And Knaus' own tire strategy Sunday?
    "We had 36 laps (90 miles) to run after that (last) pit stop, and we weren't going to come in again for tires, for sure," Knaus said.
    "Now if there had been a caution 15 laps into that run, I would venture to say the 10th to probably 20th cars would have pitted….The guys 20th and back (there were 26 on the lead lap) would have stayed out (for better track position), and jumbled it up a little bit.
    "Unfortunately, Goodyear made a tire a little bit too good, and we didn't have much falloff.
    "There again at this track position is so important, so key. Once you get behind somebody, it's very, very difficult to pass. 
    "That's one thing I was happy about our car -- we were actually able to pass people."
   Nevertheless Johnson concedes he was nervous about the tires early in the race. In fact Kyle Busch blew a right-front.
    "The first couple runs, when I was sliding the car around, it was hard not to think about beating up the tire," Johnson said.
    "It took a while to get used to it.
    "But I was watching guys around me sliding their cars, and 'Okay, we can beat up the tires.'
    "After the first stop, I heard tires looked great, so we lost the concerns from last year and focused on what we could do."


   Goodyear's new Indy tires worked perfectly this time in the Brickyard 400...so it's high-five time for Stu Grant, Rick Campbell, Greg Stucker and the guys from Akron who put in 14,000 miles of testing here with 31 NASCAR teams (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Pit road speeding penalties have been an issue at times, and certainly Sunday, when one cost Montoya the race.
   NASCAR will, if asked, show a team its own speeding numbers, but NASCAR isn't giving out all the sheets, and certainly not to the public… though after Sunday's complaints by Montoya, NASCAR did give two of Montoya's speeding readouts: The speed limit for the race was 55 mph, with a five mph grace. NASCAR said Montoya, on one segment, was clocked at 60.06 mph, and on another 60.16 mph.
    Jimmie Johnson has been caught speeding a number of times this season: "I've been nailed more this year than any. So I'm way cautious now. I'm tired of making that mistake."
     "I've been in that situation (like Montoya), and it's painful," crew chief Chad Knaus says. "You swear you didn't do anything wrong.
      "I think Sonoma was the last time: There was no way we could get busted for speeding, and somehow we did."
     Knaus says he'd like NASCAR to hand out the sheets of numbers.
   "Once you hit pit road, we don't have any reference," Knaus says. "We have mathematical equations, based on the tire stagger, gear ratio, the pit road speed.
    "I'm hoping at some point we'll be able to see the pit road speeds published -- because that will allow us to work within limits we're comfortable with.
    "If you don't know your limits, it's difficult to know what it is…and you're always going to try to get to the topside of that limit.
     "We push Jimmie to go as fast as he can on pit road. But it's kind of an unknown right now…it's a guessing game."

    Jimmie Johnson's Brickyard 400 finish (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


Hope CRAP-YEAR doesn't break


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