Five things we learned at Loudon
Despite coming in fourth, Jimmie Johnson proved he can make it four-straight
Juan Pablo Montoya remains a force; he had the fastest car all weekend
JJ may be the favorite but don't count the 50-year-old Mark Martin out yet
Five things we learned this weekend at New Hampshire:
1. Mark Martin may have won the race, but Jimmie Johnson remains the favorite to win it all
Johnson's fourth-place finish on Sunday didn't give him the overall points lead -- he's now in second, 35 points behind Martin -- but it announced to everyone (as if anybody needed a reminder) that he has the stuff to win a fourth straight Cup title. The Chase now moves on to Dover, where Johnson won in May, and where he's nearly as dominant as he is at Martinsville. JJ has four wins in 15 career starts at the Monster Mile, and has never finished worse than 15th in a fall race at the track. It's true that most of the tracks in the Chase are in his wheelhouse, but the situation is even more pronounced at Dover and Martinsville.
2. He may not be the favorite, but Mark Martin can still win his first Cup championship
Martin's brilliant regular season was a deft combination of points racing and aggressive driving. He didn't lead a ton of laps all year, but along with crew chief Alan Gustafson, picked his spots carefully and dominated when the opportunities arose. Now that the Chase has begun, look for him to be more aggressive -- just like he was on the second-to-last lap on Sunday, when he slowed in front of Montoya and then sprinted clear before the Chase rookie could get back into the gas. If there's a driver in the field capable of challenging Johnson, it is his 50-year-old teammate.
3. Juan Pablo Montoya isn't going away anytime soon
Montoya had the fastest car all weekend at New Hampshire, leading all three practice sessions, winning the pole in track-record time and leading the most laps in Sunday's race. His car was especially strong early in runs, and he nearly charged to the lead after the last caution of the race, moving from fifth to second in one lap. He and crew chief Brian Pattie were driving a car built specifically for the race, and they have two more such vehicles ready to go at Dover and Kansas. Pattie, for one, is very confident that if Montoya falls out of contention early, it won't be because of his equipment. And for his part, Montoya is driving better than he has at any time during his three years in NASCAR. The Montoya of 2007 would have put Martin in the fence for the late-race brake-check. But the new Juan Pablo takes the long view. After all, he's got a championship to win.
4. Richard Petty Motorsports is in disarray
I have to admit, I missed this one. Last week, I wrote in Racing Fan that RPM's announcement that it was going to merge with Robert Yates Racing and switch from Dodges to Fords was a good thing, a harbinger of more competitive days to come. But the deal is still in the works, and last week, RPM released former director of competition Mark McCardle, who had recently been seen arguing in the Cup garage with team co-owner George Gillett. While it's not totally clear that the Yates merger was at the heart of the dispute, there's no denying that all the turmoil has upset operations in the RPM shop. Kasey Kahne, who last Friday admitted to reporters that he wasn't really sure who was in charge at RPM, blew an engine on the 66th lap on Sunday and finished 38th, a result which knocked him all the way from fifth in the Chase to 12th. His championship hopes are effectively over.
5. ESPN is willing to fudge a few things
With 39 laps to go at New Hampshire, Jimmie Johnson entered pit row for his final stop of the day. He made the move while ESPN was on a commercial break, but the live radio and video feed in the NHIS media center broadcast the events as they happened. But lo and behold, when the Worldwide Leader in Sports returned from paying its bills, the network announced Johnson's pit stop as if it was happening live.
My question: Why? It was a pit stop. What's the big deal? Yes, the broadcast is delayed, but we had the raw, live ESPN feed in the media center ... which means that Johnson's pit-stop was double-delayed to folks viewing at home. It's this tendency to bend reality that makes people distrust what they see on the news (and read in newspapers and magazines). Again, it didn't matter within the context of the race, but in the big picture, it's not comforting to know that ESPN isn't troubled by a little line blurring.
(Editor's note: ESPN had this comment on Tuesday: "Showing Jimmie Johnson's pit stop was our effort to bring the viewers up to date on what happened while we were on a commercial break -- there was no intent to portray it as happening live.")
Mark Beech can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org