Chase is Johnson’s to lose |

Chase is Johnson’s to lose

Roger Diez
Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

And then there were five. Only half of the original field of ten “chasers” still has a mathematical chance at the 2006 Nextel Cup title, and once again it is Jimmy Johnson’s to lose.

This time appears to be Johnson’s best chance, though. He only has to finish 12th or better to take the championship, and that’s if second-place points-getter Matt Kenseth wins the race and leads the most laps. Given the recent performances of both drivers, my money is on Johnson. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, or Dale Earnhardt, Jr. would have to have an outstanding day coupled with problems for Johnson and Kenseth both to have an outside chance at the title.

Of course, given NASCAR’s propensity for throwing phantom yellow flags that somehow seem to be to Junior’s advantage, the No. 8 could just vault from fifth place to first in the final race. I’m just sayin . . .

Results were released last week on a poll to choose the 25 greatest NASCAR Bush Series drivers, and Mark Martin was ranked No. 1 by both fans and the racing media. The differences between the fan poll and the media poll were interesting.

Although both picked Martin as No. 1, fans picked Dale Earnhardt Jr. a close second, while the media chose Sam Ard ahead of Junior. It makes sense when you remember that Ard raced 20 years ago and while many fans are newcomers to NASCAR, those in the media have been covering this sport long enough to remember Sam.

Further evidence of this supposition is that fans picked newcomers Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, and Greg Biffle as top 10 in Busch greatness, while the media included notables such as Jack Ingram, Tommy Houston, Randy LaJoie, and Tommy Ellis among their top ten picks. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Harry Gant made it into both groups’ top 10 choices. More than 152,000 fans and more than 160 media types voted in the poll.

Ex-Formula 1 and Champ Car ace Juan Pablo Montoya qualified on speed for his first ever NASCAR Nextel Cup race, starting 29th in today’s contest. Montoya is doing double duty at Homestead, but as I write this the Busch race has yet to be run, so I don’t know if his performance in that series has taken an upward turn.

Montoya, who lives in the Miami area, will certainly have a large local (and vocal) fan contingent cheering him on in his inaugural Cup outing. Montoya is the first Formula 1 regular to join the Cup ranks, and he will probably increase race attendance and TV ratings for the Homestead round considerably among Hispanic race fans.

NASCAR’s Grand National division will see big changes for 2007. This division, intended as a stepping-stone to NASCAR’s top three divisions (before Formula 1, Champ Car, IRL, and sprint cars became the “development” series for the top divisions) will feature 14 races each for the Busch East Series and the West Series.

The 14th race for both series will be the invitational NASCAR Toyota All-Star Showdown at Irwindale. Major changes involve the switch to spec “crate” engines, composite bodies, and the lowering of the minimum age for competitors to 16. The idea is to make racing in Grand National more affordable, thereby encouraging more teams to compete. And by encouraging younger drivers, maybe Grand National will again see more competitors from the series joining graduates Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., David Gilliland, and Brendan Gaughan in the big leagues.

Last weekend’s Champ Car race in Mexico was the end of an era. Next season the Lola chassis, long a mainstay of Champ Car, will be replaced by a slick and modern chassis built by the folks at Panoz. The Lola was the brainchild of British designer Eric Broadley, and the Lola T-70 sports car was a contender at Lemans in the late 1960s and early 1970s, racing against the Ford GT-40s, Ferrari P4s and Porsche 908s and 917s.

Lola moved into the open-wheel arena and over the years their cars have been a staple in Champ Car racing as well as club racing venues such as Formula Ford. But we’ll no doubt see Lolas around in vintage racing for a long time to come.