Montoya strong for openers

The 2007 racing season is underway, with the Rolex 24 hour race at Daytona in the history books.

Juan Pablo Montoya was the top finisher among the NASCAR contingent in the race, co-driving the winning Daytona Prototype Lexus Riley to victory along with veteran road racer Scott Pruett and Salvador Duran. The margin of victory after 24 hours was a mere one minute, 15.842 seconds.

The win gave Pruett the outright record for class wins at the Rolex 24 with seven. Champ Car series stars Patrick Carpentier, Darren Manning, and Ryan Dalziel teamed with Milka Duno for second, making Duno the highest-placed female driver ever in the classic endurance race.

Montoya's win put him in a unique position in Motorsports, as the only driver to win a Champ Car/Indy Car title, the Indy 500, a Formula 1 race, and the Rolex 24. Interestingly, he won each of those (except the F1 race) on his first attempt.

It makes one wonder how his first stab at the Daytona 500 will turn out. He will be driving in the 500 for Chip Ganassi, who was also his car owner for the 500, the Champ Car championship, and last weekend's Rolex 24. Incidentally, it was the second year in a row that a Ganassi-owned car took the overall win at the Daytona enduro.

Speaking of firsts, it was four-time NASCAR Cup champion Jeff Gordon's first crack at sports car endurance racing, and he came home third, teamed with Max Angelelli, Jan Magnusson, and Wayne Taylor. Although it was Gordon's first outing in the 24, he indicated that it would not be his last.

He also brought his crew chief along to see if they could find some handling secrets for the No. 24 Cup car in what the sports car guys were doing. Other familiar names showing up in the top 10 finishers included Michel Jourdain/Memo Gidley/Oriol Servia in seventh, Helio Castroneves and Sam Hornish Jr. in ninth, and Bobby Labonte on the 10th-place team.

The next big race on the horizon is, of course, the Daytona 500. This year NASCAR has made a few tweaks to the points system and the Chase for the Nextel Cup format, but basically it has labored mightily and given birth to a mouse.

Personally, I favored a more drastic increase in winner's points, a change put forth by such Motorsports pundits as David Poole, Ed Hinton, and Dave Despain. These gentlemen favored a 500 point bonus for the first win of the season by any driver.

Such a huge points prize would have ensured some exciting finishes if a first-time potential winner was in the mix on the last lap. NASCAR, more cautious and tentative than ever, responded to this and other radical proposals with a picayune five point addition to the winner's tally, making a win worth 185 points plus five point bonuses for leading a lap and leading the most laps.

A slightly more emphatic nod was given to winning in the seeding for the season-ending 10-race Chase. The new format will see 12, not 10, drivers in the Chase after the first 26 points races, with the 400-point provision no longer in play. But when the points are reset, race wins will take precedence. All 12 Chase drivers will be awarded 5,000 points each, with an additional 10 points for each win in the 26-race run-up to the Chase. So a driver with four wins will start the Chase with 5,040 points, and a driver with one victory will have 5,010.

Another change I would like to see NASCAR make would be to award points to only the top 20 cars. This would eliminate the rolling wrecks gathering "valuable points," trundling around with two thirds of the bodywork missing and parts falling off randomly.

I have to give NASCAR credit for instituting a speed rule in recent years, making sure that these walking wounded are at least approaching racing speeds. But by giving points only to the top half of the field, there would be no reason for a car to re-enter the race only to move up from 37th to 35th in the late going. But if NASCAR doesn't listen to Poole and Despain, they're not likely to listen to me.


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