It isn't over yet -- Montoya still has something to say
Juan Pablo Montoya is hungry for a win after his success this Cup season
Driver Kyle Bush will need time to adjust to his new crew chief Dave Rogers
Jimmie Johnson is about to make NASCAR history by winning four straight Cups
SI.com's Mark Beech takes a spin around the racing world for the most intriguing stories in and out of the garage.
It's come to this: with its championship all but decided a month early, the quality of its racing under fire after a disastrous weekend at Talladega, and with its biggest star mired in the most disastrous season of his career, NASCAR's Cup series enters its final three races with a bit of an image problem.
But fans who choose to tune out the 2009 stretch run will be missing out. Off the top of my head, I can think of five reasons to keep watching... I am a Racing Fan, after all. Here are my five favorite storylines of what's left of the year in wheels:
1. Juan Pablo Montoya
Montoya might win on an oval. There's no question that, in his third year of Cup racing, the former F1 star is one of the most talented wheelmen in the series. He's been driving for most of the past two months with aggression, passion and serious speed. It would be a triumph for Montoya to continue his run of excellence through the end of the Chase in the sort of sustained run that I think would have a real chance of carrying over to 2010. Despite his successes, Montoya really burns to win, and he hasn't done that since his first Cup race at Sonoma two years ago. If he ever figures out how to stay in front on one of the ovals that make up most of the circuit, Montoya is going to be a championship contender for years to come.
2. Mark Martin
He's won plenty this season, and while he's probably not going to win a championship (again), there's no arguing that he's had one of the best seasons in the Cup by drivers not named Jimmie Johnson. Martin will be back in 2010, but his future is uncertain after that, meaning the end might finally -- finally -- be near for one of NASCAR's true originals. Martin is more than a star; he's a living embodiment of NASCAR's past, a constant reminder that the drivers who were great 20 years ago, would still be great today. Take a long look. You're not going to see another like Martin for a long time.
3. Kyle Busch and his new crew chief
The Shrub was awfully successful with Steve Addington on top of his pit box; the two won 12 Cup races in the last two seasons. How long will it take NASCAR's enfant terrible to gel with Dave Rogers? The guess here is they will be fine, since Rogers has been a major part of the Nationwide success for Joe Gibbs Racing (notwithstanding his suspension last season for affixing magnets to the underside of the gas pedals of JGR's Toyotas). But more than winning, Rogers will offer consistency to the No. 18 team. If he can get Busch to scale back on his checkers-or-wreckers style, perhaps we won't have to watch Jimmie Johnson win a fifth-straight Cup title.
4. Junior, Junior, Junior
He's one reason people tune in on a regular basis, and the June-Bug's performance over the last three will be interesting. Has he given up on the season? Or is he laying the foundation for a run to the Chase in 2010? The man is out of excuses and needs to produce results. Any positive sign at this stage is sure to be welcomed by both his fans and NASCAR. Now, more than ever, racing needs its biggest star to perform.
5. Jimmie Johnson and history
I've already expended a fair amount of space in this column to defend the merits of Johnson's impending fourth championship. Suffice to say that his championship is a big deal -- an accomplishment we're not likely to see again for quite some time. It demands to be acknowledged and honored.
2 Number of Chase drivers who have run all 17 Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway (Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin)
9 Number of top-10 finishes for Gordon and Martin at Texas
12 Number of starts at Texas for Chase leader Jimmie Johnson
9 Number of top-10 finishes for Johnson at Texas
THE PHOTO FINISH
Another clip found over at All Left Turns, an excellent blog well worth a visit. This was included in a list titled, 50 Things More Exciting Than Sunday's Race at Talladega. And it's hard to argue. Look at the little guy go!