Jimmie Johnson

Richmond International Raceway

Previewing the NASCAR Wonderful Pistachios 400

by Matt Taliaferro and Nathan Rush

Race: Wonderful Pistachios 400
Location: Richmond, Va.
When: Saturday, Sept. 10
TV: ABC (7:30 p.m. EST)
2010 Winners: Kyle Busch (May); Denny Hamlin (Sept.)
May 2011 Winner: Kyle Busch

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<p> Previewing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series' final regular season race, the Wonderful Pistachios 400 from Richmond International Raceway.</p>

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Marked Man

Juan Pablo Montoya's list of enemies growing by the week

by Tom Bowles

Kermit the Frog may have it tough being green, but in the muppet-like drama of NASCAR I’m betting it’s 1,000 times tougher to be driving the red No. 42 Target Chevy these days. Indeed, every driver appears to see a bulls-eye on Juan Pablo Montoya’s back, past the point of marriage counseling and consulting every lawyer possible to see if they can initiate stock car divorce.

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<p> The Juan Pablo Montoya-Clint Bowyer dust-up was the latest in a lengthy list for Montoya. Athlon Sports contributor Tom Bowles breaks down his on- and off-track run-ins with the stars of NASCAR.</p>

Kyle Busch  In the days before “New Kyle,” the old version would rant about literally everything that happened to him on-track. The July 2010 Coke Zero 400 was no exception, but this time Busch had evidence to back it up, claiming Montoya flat out wrecked him while battling for the lead at Daytona on Lap 104.

“The replay shows I turned right across the nose of the 42, so apparently I wanted to wreck myself,” he said. “Some people don’t understand what happens in these cars. With the old tires like that, I’ve got no grip, I’m barely hanging on sliding around as it is out there.”

Joey Logano  The typically mild-mannered “Sliced Bread” nearly sliced Montoya in half after the two made contact at Homestead last year. How bad did it get? Felix Sabates, Montoya’s co-owner, literally threatened J.D. Gibbs title contender Denny Hamlin would wind up wrecked if Logano didn’t cut it out. Apparently, the youngster (are you sensing a theme?) was upset about the way he was being raced, retaliating after the first incident so both men would end their day with time spent inside the garage.

“I gave him plenty of room,” Logano said. “I just felt like I got hooked. That’s two times with him this year. I don’t know what the deal is.”

Kevin Harvick  Two men, one shove-fest. There’s YouTube video proof.

“It just seems like he runs over somebody every week,” Harvick said that day, and he should know, as these two have made contact several times over Montoya’s five years in Cup, averaging to about once a season. Perhaps RCR’s most heated intra-Cup rivalry until …

Clint Bowyer  See Atlanta. Tuesday. And a Cheerios car that looks like mush.

Ryan Newman  The No. 1 anti-Montoya suspect. These two tangled both on the track and off this spring, after a series of Richmond incidents inciting a meeting in the NASCAR hauler where Newman supposedly socked Montoya. It was a prizefight no one would actually confirm happened, even though when reached for comment it was the Colombian who said, “Newman punches like a girl.”

Frankly, these two have had it out for each other ever since Montoya’s Homestead Cup debut went up in flames after they tangled in 2006. It got so bad this time around, the “suckerpunch victim” threatened legal action unless NASCAR dished out one of those “secret fines” to his Stewart-Haas Racing rival.

Jimmie Johnson  Where do we begin? The latest tiff between the two occurred in July, when contact up in New Hampshire sent Johnson spinning and forced the No. 48 into hyper-aggressive mode simply to claw back up to fifth by the finish.

“The No. 42 — I don’t think of the three times he’s wrecked me it’s been intentional,” said Johnson. “But he’s out of mulligans. I’ve had enough of, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, and you’re spun out.’ It’s happened way too often.”

Apparently, that’s the case with everyone. So far, we’ve listed 10 drivers, nearly a quarter of the Sprint Cup field each week, with whom a Montoya feud has gone public — and that’s not including the private scrapes even the media can’t get hold of each week. Even those drivers some might classify as underdogs — like Regan Smith, who was a Montoya victim in May 2010 at Charlotte — have developed a grudge. But how could you now when the Colombian responds to an accident like he did after that one?

“It's just hard when you have guys that don't belong there running there,” Montoya said of Smith, who has now won just as many races (one) on the Cup level during the past two seasons. “He never gave me any room … I wanted to run the middle and he just turned down. That's what happens when you start by a lottery and not by performance, and he just doesn't have any [talent]."

The irony of it all is that it’s Montoya’s performance that has suffered the most. All of the drivers on this list, save Logano and Smith, have more career victories while more than half will make the Chase this season. Compare that to an ugly track record for Earnhardt-Ganassi’s top team, which will miss the playoffs for the second straight year and fourth time in five, currently sitting 21st in points and armed with just two top-5 finishes in 25 starts. But don’t expect Montoya himself to take the blame for that, as his crew chief Brian Pattie was axed in July after playing “anger management” on top of the pit box for three seasons.

Bowyer may have stepped over the line in calling Montoya names. But when will Montoya utter the two most important words all these drivers want to hear?

An “I’m sorry” would go a long way, right? But I guess the first problem with that is you actually have to believe that something was your fault.

Agree with Tom? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @NASCARBowles

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NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Mustache and mullet jokes need not apply

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Jimmie Johnson  Two runner-up finishes in the last three races but no wins since Talladega in April. It’s almost Chase time, though, and Johnson finds himself leading the pack (albeit in a controlled four-wheel drift) as September begins. Surprise, surprise.

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<p> Tropical Depression Lee, meet Jeff Gordon. Gordon won the day in Atlanta, but Jimmie Johnson — who finished second in a four-wheel drift — still sits atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

9. Kurt Busch  Like the little girl with the curl, Kurt can be very, very good or very, very bad. Problem is, that doesn’t translate into Chase success.

10. Kevin Harvick  After back-to-back 22nd-place finishes, Harvick and the boys rebound with a respectable seventh at AMS. Still, something is amiss here.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  He’ll probably make the Chase, but at this rate that’s about all you can expect.

12. Tony Stewart  Finally broke out of a nasty slump with a big third-place showing at Atlanta. More should follow. Should.

13. Martin Truex Jr.   He keeps showing flashes of brilliance but just can’t finish like the big boys.

14. AJ Allmendinger  Somehow ranks 13th in the standings. Probably because that’s about where he finishes each week.

15. Clint Bowyer  If you were at work, YouTube his comments about Juan Pablo Montoya. Classic.

Just off the lead pack: Marcos Ambrose, Greg Biffle, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin, Paul Menard

 

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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Gordon Wins No. 85

Jeff Gordon wins Atlanta, pulls into third on the all-time NASCAR wins list

by Matt Taliaferro

It’s been almost 19 years since a 20-year-old Jeff Gordon made his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start. The day was November 15, 1992; the race the Hooter’s 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. And it would go down as the most notable of the sport’s modern era.

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<p> Jeff Gordon won a thrilling battle against teammate Jimmie Johnson at Atlanta to score his 85th career Cup victory.</p>

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The Summer of Brad

Keselowski continues unlikely hot streak, wins Bristol

by Matt Taliaferro

Brad Keselowski had sniffed the lead all night long, but it wasn’t until the final restart of the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race that he finally grabbed it and took it as his own. Keselowski shot past Martin Truex Jr. on the race’s final restart, and with clean air and a clean windshield, cruised to an impressive win at Bristol Motor Speedway’s famed night race.

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<p> Brad Keselowski recorded his third win of the 2011 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a win at the Irwin Tools Bristol Night Race.</p>

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NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Kyle "The Surgeon" Busch speeding away from the competition

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Kyle Busch  “The Surgeon” begins to pull away … kind of like he’s going 128 mph and the rest of the field is doing the 45 mph speed limit.

2. Jimmie Johnson  To those harping about how Johnson is ripe for the taking, take notice that he has only six finishes worse than 11th (in 23 races) this year and sits second in the point standings. Blue 48, prepare to make your Chase run.

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<p> Kyle Busch begins to pull away from Jimmie Johnson and the rest of the field in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

7. Ryan Newman Newman is very quietly putting together a solid season. He’s no Kyle Busch, but if things continue along the current path, he could make a respectable showing in the championship standings.

8. Kevin Harvick Harvick has been awful quiet lately. Too quiet, in fact. Makes me wish for the days of his grandstanding with Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Matt Kenseth, Ricky Rudd, Carl Edwards ... am I leaving anyone out?

9. Kurt Busch Wonder if, after 38th- and 34th-place runs, Kurt is wishing he was still behind the wheel of the Miller Lite Dodge? After all, his scripted sponsor plugs worked better then. Kind of.

10. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior sits 10th here not because of his impressive performances, but because no one else has wrested it from him. And at this point, that wouldn’t be hard to do.

11. Mark Martin  Showing real signs of speed the last few weeks — and there’s still time to sneak into this Chase.

12. Tony Stewart  His cars aren’t handling right, he’s frustrated, Bristol is up next and he’s on the Chase bubble. NASCAR media beware!

13. Denny Hamlin  Sometimes you get the feeling Denny gets inside his own head.

14. Greg Biffle  At least he’s qualifying better these days ...

15. Clint Bowyer  Somehow still hanging in at 11th in the standings, which may speak to the competition down there.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Kasey Kahne, Paul Menard, Martin Truex Jr.
 

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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Kyle Busch Wins in Michigan

Kyle Busch muscles to Win No. 4 of 2011, takes points lead

by Matt Taliaferro

There was no fuel mileage or weather-related strategy involved in the Pure Michigan 400 at Michigan International Speedway — only pure, unadulterated horsepower. And Kyle Busch had the most of it, pulling away from Jimmie Johnson on a green-white-checker restart to win his fourth NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race of 2011, and in the process, take the lead in the championship standings.

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<p> Kyle Busch pulled away from Jimmie Johnson in a green-white-checker finish at Michigan International Speedway to win the Pure Michigan 400 on Sunday.</p>

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NASCAR Horsepower Rankings

Is Keselowski Brewing Up a Chase Run?

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Kyle Busch  Leads the series in top 5s (12) and is tied for the lead in wins (3) and top 10s (14). He also leads all drivers in best looking wife/girlfriend (and there’s some stiff competition there).

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<p> Kyle Busch still sits atop Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings, but a new threat is gaining ground fast.</p>

5. Brad Keselowski  Is this ranking too high for Keselowski? Maybe, but there’s no doubt the boy is delivering on his potential — busted ankle and all — and could make for a nice darkhorse title contender (and no, none of his product was consumed in the writing of this article).

6. Kevin Harvick  Scores his first top-10 finish at Watkins Glen since the July Daytona race. That said, he’s somehow pulled a Carl Edwards and stayed firmly entrenched in the top 5 in the standings. Doesn’t he just seem to disappear sometimes?

7. Kurt Busch  It’s hard to recall the last time a lapped car gave the leader the boot, but that’s what we saw out of Busch at the Glen. Let’s see — Kurt would now be wise to steer clear of Johnson and Allmendinger for a while.

8. Matt Kenseth  Random stat of the day: Matt Kenseth — not especially known for his road racing acumen — has six straight finishes between 12th and 14th on the roadies. I don’t know how to interpret that, but there it is.

9. Ryan Newman  The circuit returns to Michigan on Sunday, where Newman scored a sixth-place finish in June. Expect about the same out of a team that’s been trending upward in the season’s second half. And expect some sarcastic response to a reporter during his Friday media availability for good measure.

10. Tony Stewart  A solid top 5 at the Glen was spoiled late. The resulting 27th dropped him in the standings to the edge of the Chase cliff. That oughta put Tony in a real good mood in Michigan.

11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.  A 15th at the Glen? Yeah, Junior will gladly take that and move on to the site of his last win.

12. Denny Hamlin  We’re all just glad Denny walked away from that one. It’ll be interesting to see what a new engine package does for his team moving forward.

13. Paul Menard  A blown tire late at the Glen ruined what was another pretty decent run for Menard. I’m sure if you asked him about it, he’d give you a very leveled and somewhat emotionless response.

14. Joey Logano  That road course training Joey got from Max Papis paid off to the tune of a fifth-place run. Man, this kid is still all over the board.

15. Greg Biffle  This may be premature, but Biffle could very well rocket up these ranking after he wins Michigan this weekend.

Just off the lead pack: AJ Allmendinger, Marcos Ambrose, Clint Bowyer, Kasey Kahne, Mark Martin

 

Agree with Matt’s rankings? Disagree? Post a comment below and tell him how you feel. You can also follow Matt on Twitter @MattTaliaferro

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Horsepower Rankings

Pocono Rain Doesn't Dampen Spirited Finish

by Matt Taliaferro

1. Kyle Busch  For the second race in a row, Busch overcame issues that hindered his early-race gains to post a top-10 finish. The runner-up at Pocono finds him just 11 points out of the points lead.

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<p> Edwards is signed, Johnson is gearing up for his run and Gordon is, well, Gordon. But Kyle Busch is still the man to beat in Athlon Sports' weekly Horsepower Rankings.</p>

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