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"There's a lot of junk out there today. If you want it straight, read Kirby." -- Paul Newman

The Way It Is/ The Chase for the Cup is on

by Gordon Kirby
Everyone's sentimental favorite to win this year's NASCAR Sprint Cup championship kicked-off the Chase for the Cup with his fortieth Cup win and first on the one-mile New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday. Fifty-year old Mark Martin showed his younger competitors how to do the job as he beat fellow Chase contenders Denny Hamlin, Juan Pablo Montoya and Jimmie Johnson. Montoya started the race from the pole and was the man to beat all day, but Martin and crew chief Alan Gustafson played their strategy perfectly as Martin led the race's final twenty-nine laps through three restarts.

"Alan made the right call to position us in the front," Martin acknowledged. "We weren't good enough to drive from sixth or eighth to first. But as it turned out we were good enough to stay in front through three restarts over the last twenty laps. I think we had quite a bit left on our tires as well."

Montoya put on a spectacular late-race charge to the front but couldn't outfox Martin. In fact, it was the other way round as Martin kept Montoya behind him using hard but entirely fair tactics.

"I have a lot of respect for Juan Montoya," Martin remarked. "I have respect for him and he has for me before a lot of others on the racetrack. I didn't know for sure that he wouldn't slip because I know he's racing for his first oval track win. But I knew he wouldn't slip on purpose. We're all fighting hard so I tried to give him enough room but do my race too, and with the way this racetrack is that isn't enough.

"I gave him the respect from day one on the racetrack and I got respect a long time ago from him, not just today. I thought that he would do the right thing and if it didn't turn out to be the right thing it would have been a mistake, not something he was going to do to try knock me out of the way to get the win. And he could count on the same from me. That's my code and I'm criticized sometimes for that code. Sometimes the fact is overlooked that you get what you give."

Montoya complained that Martin ruined his momentum by getting on the brakes harder for turns one and two than Juan anticipated.

"We started really strong," Juan said. "The first ten laps of each run we had the fastest car but then it just seemed to go away really bad. It got really tight. We tried to work on it but couldn't really do too much. At the end we took four tires and we restarted in P9 or 10 and I passed a ton of cars.

"Every restart I passed three or four cars. I got to Mark and I was running beside him. I thought I had enough to get him at the line. He cleared me coming out of turn four and when he went into one and two he stopped at the bottom. It's okay. I didn't expect that. I was expecting him to run pretty hard, but he just ran very defensively. I got caught by surprise. I think if I had been prepared I would have jumped to the outside.

"Mark always runs very clean so I was kind of surprised when he did that. I know it's the Chase and everything, but I would've done the same thing. I think you gotta do it to somebody you trust who's not going to knock you out. But you learn from it. It's one of those deals. You've gotta do what it takes and he did.

"I haven't fought for enough wins," Montoya added. "Did I get screwed? Yes. In the last three laps, I got stuck at the bottom inside Hamlin and Mark just drove away. When that happens, you don't want to spin the guy out. Maybe you want to get your bumper to the inside. You've just got to learn from it. He's one of the guys I respect the most out there. He always gives me a lot of space. If I had been in his position with two laps to go I would have done the same thing. It's frustrating when they do it to you, but when you do it to somebody it feels good."

Martin defended his move, suggesting that Montoya's car was so quick that Juan didn't have a fair reference point.

"Yeah, I stopped quick compared to how fast his car was going," Martin remarked. "But I don't think I stopped big-time. Maybe it looked like that to him based on how fast he was. This is a very frustrating racetrack and track position is so incredibly critical and lane choice is critical as well. Juan had the fastest car today and I fought for that race, but I still won't do some stuff I wish I would.

"I did make sure that I didn't go in there and lose it once I got in front of him. My car was not fast into the corner so it probably felt slow, especially to him. We made our time coming off the corner and kinda had to get into the corners easy. Once you got the lead you need to make sure you don't drive it in there and turn it sideways and slide up to the top of the racetrack. I mean, how stupid would I have looked then?"

Montoya said he was disappointed not to win but was very happy with his result from the first round of the Chase.

"We made the Chase and from now on, anything above that is a bonus," Juan observed. "To come here for the first Chase race and put it on pole and finish second. Can I ask for anything else? Not really. A win would be nice, but we're getting there.

"With thirty laps to go I was running twelfth and being able to pick up ten or eleven places in twenty laps, I'm more than happy. I was running twelfth and I saw the #48 and the #5 and the #24 ahead me. I said, 'This sucks!' But I had two good restarts. We were very good on the restarts. We ran good."

Montoya said he thinks Martin is the man to beat for this year's championship.

"I think Mark is the most dangerous guy," Juan declared. "He's the guy with the most experience. He hasn't won a championship and he wants one pretty bad. I know the #48's gonna be there every week, like always, but if somebody wants it really bad it's Mark. If we get a shot at it we're going to give it everything we've got. We ain't leaving anything on the table, I can tell you that."

The ever-humble Martin gave crew chief Gustafson full credit for winning the race.

"Alan has really pulled off something big to win a race with me here at Loudon because I don't get around this place that well," Martin remarked. "Alan had a great plan for the car and they got it running great lap times in race trim. I thought if we could stumble around and get to the front that I might be able to stay out front, and we figured out how to do that too. It was an incredible accomplishment.

"Alan is the best combination of really smart engineering and a guy that pulls the wrenches and gets his hands dirty that I've ever worked with. He's a practical racer. I've worked with great engineers and really smart people and great, practical guys who work on race cars. But Alan is the strongest combination of all that.

"I didn't expect to win this race once the cautions started falling. I expected to fight for it. We've run pretty good here. We sat on the pole one year and Rusty (Wallace) beat me. Another year we thought we were running really good and the #24 beat us with a two-tire stop, or something. We've been in position here, but I like rounder racetracks like Phoenix where you can get a handful of steering wheel and slide and manipulate that baby and make it do something that it doesn't want to do. You can't do that at Martinsville and you really can't do that here, even more I think than Martinsville."

Gustafson said his crew focused on getting a good result in New Hampshire.

"We weren't the greatest here the last race, so we worked really hard," Gustafson said. "We knew this was a race we needed to focus on to run well. We didn't want to give up too many points because we knew Denny (Hamlin) would run well here and Kurt (Busch) is really good here and it turned out that Juan was awesome today and Jimmie (Johnson)'s always awesome everywhere."

The crew chief added that Martin, not Gustafson, is the most important component in his car's success.

"When you talk about using really good strategy and beating people on restarts, none of that is possible unless you have a really good race driver," Gustafson said. "You've got to have everything a hundred percent in this sport to win or contend to win. The driver is obviously a very key component to that and in my opinion Mark is the best driver out there. He proves that time and time again. Not only does he restart well and race well, but he's obviously very smart. He knows what to do and when to go.

"You know you've got a driver who can make the maximum out of whatever decisions we make. We're so fortunate to have Mark. Everything that we work really hard on he puts that same amount of effort in when he gets behind the wheel and takes full advantage of it, and that's all you can ask for."

Denny Hamlin said Martin's move on the final restart helped him steal second place from Montoya.

"Yes, it did," Hamlin commented. "Montoya was bottled up on the bottom and I knew it was going to be interesting because his spotter came over and told my spotter that he wasn't going to lift getting into turn one until the #5 did. So it was going to be extremely exciting.

"When you're on the outside the guy on the inside is at your mercy. I was stuck in third place on every restart and the #48 was on the outside and I kept running into him. So the #42 was in a bad spot. Even though his car may have been quicker, it didn't matter because the #5 had position on him and the #5 used it to his advantage. He just kinda held the #42 low and when you do that there's just no grip in the race car.

"We didn't really have a race-winning car until about fifty laps to go," Hamlin added. "We were catching the #5 and the #2 really fast by half a second a lap. I thought if the race stayed green we had a shot at it. When the caution came out I knew that wasn't going to be good for us because it put us in the bottom lane and I got killed on every single restart when I was in the bottom lane. I'd get stuck three-wide in the first corner and then I'd have to battle my way back. So to come out second when I should have been fifth with all those restarts, I'm pretty proud of that."

Meanwhile, Montoya clearly is enjoying life in NASCAR more than ever.

"I'm loving it," Juan said. "It's kind of nice having like zero pressure right now. It's cool. I think the first five races in the Chase you definitely have to try to get a top-ten every week. Ideally, a top five, but I think if you can get a pretty good average in the first four or five races with good finishes and if you get a chance to win you've got to take them now. You always try, but you always try being smart.

"In Formula One when you've got the best car you've got to win and when you don't have the best car, you don't win. It's that simple. Here, every week you've got a shot at winning and you've got to try to do the best to take it. It's hard because any given Sunday there are four or five cars out there that can actually win the race. It comes down to pitstops and strategy and all that stuff.

"It's good that we are competitive now. It sucks when you're not. But when you're not it doesn't mean you are not trying. You know, last year when we finished fifteenth or sixteenth that was an awesome day. Now we finish fifteenth and we suck. This year we achieved what we wanted to do and making the Chase is like a little bonus for us. It's a plus.

"We're going to be bringing our best cars every week to make sure that we don't leave anything on the table. We think we are bringing our best equipment and everybody else will as well. The team is incredible. They're pumped up, they're excited, and they can see that we can do it."

Steve Hmiel is Earnhardt-Ganassi's director of competition. Hmiel has worked in NASCAR for thirty-five years, starting in the mid-seventies with Petty Enterprises. He moved to Billy Hagan's team in 1983 and won championship the following year with Terry Labonte before joining Jack Roush in 1987 to help start Roush's NASCAR team. He worked for Roush for a dozen years before moving to Dale Earnhardt Inc. in 1998.

"The team wasn't where it needed it to be," Hmiel commented. "A lot of changes needed to be made. Fortunately for Chip Ganassi Racing, Ed Nathman was available and he came on board and together we identified the changes we needed to make."

Nathman started his career in racing back in 1976 with Bob Tullius's Group 44 operation. Two years later he joined McLaren North America's BMW team, then worked for McLaren Engines and Zakspeed in Detroit through 1983. Nathman went Indy car racing, first with Patrick Racing in 1984, then Galles and Newman-Haas through CARTs heydays.

"When Champ Car fell apart in 2003 I went down to Charlotte to find a job," Nathman remarked.

He first worked for Andy Petree's team, then the Denver-based Furniture Row team before joining Earnhardt-Ganassi fourteen months ago.

"Ed brought a huge background and a lot of common sense, and that's a rare combination," Hmiel observed. "Usually you have a guy that wants to stare at a computer all day, or a guy who wants to weld all day. But with a guy like Ed we have both. He and I are a lot alike along those lines and we just made a plan with everybody included and some days we made some really tough decisions without everybody included. And it's worked out.

"So you've just got a couple of old racers that Chip Ganassi said, 'Go fix my race car team.' The two of us, along with 150 or so other people, have pulled together and it seems to be working pretty good right now. It's not about two people, it's about 152 people.

"We've moved a lot of people around and put some people into positions that they weren't really comfortable with to begin with, but they've grown into it. Juan had three crew chiefs last year and he was not at all excited about that, but we had to keep searching around until we found the right guy. Juan has learned an awful lot about stock car racing over the past year. He's proud of himself and everybody's real proud of themselves.

"It's just been a real logical approach to auto racing, a large group of people that are anxious to show the world that they know what they're doing. We suffered in 2007 and through half or three quarters of the races last year and looked like we didn't know anything.

"When you have the job of fixing something that was pretty far out of whack there are days where it's real enjoyable as you watch it get better and there are days where it's just a nightmare as you make changes going forward. A lot of changes were real uncomfortable and most of them weren't even popular, but you've got to stick to your guns."

Hmiel says it's easy to get deluded about what's important in making a successful team. He believes too many people in the sport today consider themselves specialists in certain areas and don't have sufficient interest or awareness of the overall picture.

"You can go through school, watch racing on television, graduate with a degree in something and become a racing mechanic or engineer, or what have you," Hmiel remarked. "But I still think a lot of people who started out driving the team's truck and building headers and oil pans and chassis and changing tires and things like that, I think a team always needs to have that.

"That's old school. It's old people wanting to harken back to when things were really good. But I still believe that a racer has to come from racing. The best racers will come from racing and the best racers will know the most about their race cars.

"I don't think anyone can put themselves into a position where they say, 'Well this is what I do. The rest of you guys need to worry about those things.' I think you need to have the type of personality where you worry about everything and notice everything and you walk up to a situation and can instinctively understand what's wrong and what you need to do to fix it. I think people who have raced their whole lives like Ed Nathman know a lot about that stuff."

Nathman also gives Montoya full credit for the team's move to the front of the field.

"Juan has learned how to drive ovals," Nathman said. "He's always searching for grip out there and he's learned a lot about how to get the best out of the car on ovals. One of the biggest improvements is Juan himself. The driver is always very much the key."

In his Indy car and Formula One days Montoya always impressed with his ability to drive a loose car. Hanging it out was never a problem for Juan, but it's taken him a little while to be able to do the same thing with confidence in a stock car.

"One time I asked him," Hmiel recalls. "I said, 'You have a reputation for being really quick in a loose race car. But in a stock car you slow way down when it gets loose.' And he said that was because he wasn't sure what it was going to do. He said, 'I'm just not going to run it that loose because it hurts the tires and that makes it handle worse and worse.'

"One day we gave him the tape of an in-car camera of Michael Andretti running behind Juan at Milwaukee in Indy cars and it was incredible how loose Juan was. So I'm not saying he's learned how to drive a loose car because he already knew. But he's learned how to apply the brakes, how to get these cars to turn, how to search for grip.

"We've got better engines this year than we've ever had," Hmiel admits. "But we have a race car driver who I think is on top of his game in a stock car. He was always on top of his game in anything else and now he's learned how to be on top of his game in these cars.

"It's coming along," Hmiel added on Sunday morning in New Hampshire. "We need to win some races. You can't sit back and say we're running in the top five. We need to win races. We need some trophies."

Based on what we saw last Sunday afternoon, Montoya and Earnhardt-Ganassi should win a race or two over the season's last two months and be serious contenders to win the Sprint Cup title.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2009 ~ All Rights Reserved

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