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The Way It Is/ Jimmie Johnsonís momentum, Montoyaís travails, and Allmendingerís long trek

by Gordon Kirby
Tony Stewart had the hot set-up at Texas on Sunday as he dominated the Nextel Cup race, leading 278 of 339 laps and winning his fifth race of the year. Jimmie Johnson ran another strong race to finish a close second and take the championship lead from Matt Kenseth who came home twelfth in Texas.

With two races to go at Phoenix next weekend and Homestead the following week, Johnson leads Kenseth by seventeen points after a series of good races. In contrast, Kenseth has been resolutely persistent in recent races, but not much more than that. The 2003 champion hasnít been very strong in the stretch run to the championship while Johnson has been a top runner in almost every recent race.

Dale Earnhardt Jr finished sixth in Texas and is third in points, 78 behind leader Johnson. Denny Hamlin was tenth in Texas, and is fifth in points, 80 behind Johnson. Kevin Harvick finished third in Texas and is sixth in points, 105 behind Johnson, while Jeff Gordon is sixth, 157 points back. Anything can still happen, but at this stage the momentum appears to be on Johnsonís side as the 31-year old Californian attempts to win his first NASCAR title.

While this yearís championship chase winds down, Juan Montoya continues to prepare for his rookie Cup season in 2007. Montoya ran his second Busch race last Saturday in Texas in one of Chip Ganassiís Dodges and there were no fewer then sixteen Cup drivers in the Busch field so it was very competitive. After running a pair of ARCA races, Juan made his NASCAR debut the previous weekend in a Busch race at the tight, bumpy Memphis Motorsports Park half-mile. He qualified on the fifth row in Memphis and got up to fifth place before falling back to run ninth and tenth. It was a 250-lap race and in the end there were a record number of yellows so Juan got a full taste of bunched fields and restarts.

© Nigel Kinrade/LATUSA
With ninety laps to go Montoya came down on another car, touched him and half-spun. He had to go to the pits to fix some minor bodywork damage and rejoined at the tail of the lead lap. Juan made reasonable progress and was able to finish eleventh after avoiding a multi-car wreck on the last lap in which Paul Menard spun and Montoya just missed him.

Last weekend at the fast, difficult Texas track, Juan qualified tenth for the Busch race. He had trouble in practice, struggling to find the speed required to make the field, but got it sorted out for qualifying. Mark Martin was on pole for the Busch race from Kyle Busch. Also in the top ten were Busch champion Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth, so Juan was in pretty good company.

But on the warm-up lap he damaged the left front corner of his carís valence, apparently by getting too high at a certain point on the track on cold, soft tires and low ride height. So Montoya had to pit at the end of the warm-up lap and rejoined at the back of the field in forty-third position. He moved up steadily and was thirtieth after thirty laps and twenty-fifth ten laps later, running behind Carl Edwards.

Then Montoya got too high and swiped the wall. He had to pit for repairs and fresh tires and lost two laps in the pits, rejoining in fortieth place. In the end Juan finished twenty-fifth, three laps down, as Busch champion Harvick scored his ninth win of the year, one short of the Busch record of ten wins.

As Montoya begins to come to grips with NASCAR, fellow, former open-wheeler A.J. Allmendinger has discovered that his move to tin tops has taken him from the front to the back of the field. At Texas last Friday, Allmendinger got his first inkling of the mountain he has to climb in NASCAR. In his first outing with Marty Gauntís Red Bull team Allmendinger didnít make the field. He qualified fiftieth, dead last, well off the pace.

As far as I know, none of Allmendingerís managers or advisers have any knowledge at all of NASCAR. They may have advised him well financially, but Iím not sure they understand NASCARís playing field. Being with a brand new team and a new manufacturer means Allmendinger faces a giant uphill struggle as he learned in Texas. Thereís little doubt that everyone involved in Allmendingerís move to NASCAR, not least A.J. himself, will be exposed to many interesting lessons over the next few years.

As regular readers know, Iím among those who expect Toyota to dominate in NASCAR come 2010. But the intervening years will be tough for any Toyota team, particulary a new team, and equally with the Car of Tomorrow arriving during the same time period. Adapting to the CoT will take a lot of time, money and effort, and itís unlikely that a new team will be able to match the resources being unleashed on the CoT by the likes of Hendrick, Roush, DEI, Childress, Penske others.

But Allmendinger faces many more immediate hurdles. Any new Cup team has no provisional starting places to its credit which means A.J. will have to make the field for every race on qualifying speed. Fifty cars are expected to continue to show up for most Cup races in 2007 so the chances are that Allmendinger may often find himself listed among the DNQs. NASCAR is not so much about driver ability as it is about the car, equipment, crew chief, the team, and above all, experience. Nobody in NASCAR rules for more than a few races at any time--witness both regular season and play-off portions of this yearís Cup championship--and Allmendinger may soon discover that he led a charmed life in open-wheel racing.

I remember introducing A.J. to my good friend and longtime colleague Nigel Roebuck at the Autosport Awards in London a few years ago. "An excellent driver, as you know," I said to Nigel. "If he has any fault, itís that he has perhaps a little too much hubris.

"But then again," I added, "thatís not necesarily a bad thing." And we all laughed.

Later in the evening we introduced A.J. to Stirling Moss--Sir Stirling, of course--who sat down with Allmendinger for ten minutes, the pair enjoying a private chat. Over the years, from his first appearance on the publicís radar screens in the Team USA and Skip Barber scholarships, through winning the Barber Dodge and Toyota/Atlantic titles in successive years, to being given his big chance in Champ cars by RuSPORTís Carl Russo, Allmendinger has had every opportunity that any young American open-wheel racer could hope for.

Indeed, this past summer he was thrown the ultimate Champ Car lifeline by Jerry Forsythe. For sure, A.J. took full advantage of the situation, but it now looks as if he seriously underestimated the tools and resources that were placed at his disposal by Team Forsythe which in turn enabled him to display his talent.

The fact of the matter is teams like Forsythe are rare in racing. There are two or three in each of Champ Car and IRL, maybe three or four in Formula One, and possibly six or seven in NASCAR. So again, looking at the situation in the cool light of morning, you can only say that Allmendinger and the Red Bull team have begun a long trek up a very steep mountain.

Auto Racing ~ Gordon Kirby
Copyright 2006 ~ All Rights Reserved

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