Juan Pablo Montoya: Do you want to be the NASCAR official who has to tell this guy ‘You’re disqualified.’ (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
KANSAS CITY, Kansas
Juan Pablo Montoya? On the pole? Yes! And in a Dodge!
So this place may well be an unexpected wild card in NASCAR’s championship chase.
Whoops. Not so fast.
An hour later NASCAR officials disallowed Montoya’s fastest-time-of-the-afternoon – 172.150 mph—and ordered him to start 42nd Sunday, at the rear of the field.
Chevy men Jimmie Johnson (172.007 mph) and soon-to-be-teammate Mark Martin (171.767 mph) will thus have the front row for the 400-miler.
What? Well, this looks like the story – NASCAR said that Montoya’s rear shocks exceeded the maximum allowed gas pressure.
Well, pumping up shocks with extremely high gas pressures is an old racing trick, which raises the rear end of the car, thus making better downforce in the corners, thus making more speed.
But when that trick became rampant a few years ago, NASCAR caught on, and it instituted a controlled inspection procedure for all teams’ shocks.
Montoya’s violation brings into question NASCAR’s shock inspection procedures: Was NASCAR just too lax?
Kyle Busch: Is he out of the title chase, or is he about to launch one of the great championship comebacks in NASCAR history? (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Johnson is looking for his fifth win of the season this weekend. Greg Biffle, Ford’s ace at the moment, in Greg Erwin’s Jack Roush car, is one of Sunday’s favorites, and he’s going for his third straight chase victory. Johnson says that doesn’t surprise him: “In some ways I’m surprised and in other ways I’m not,” Johnson says. “Greg has been so solid through the Truck series and Busch series, and I’ve always looked up to his hard-nosed driving and aggression on track and getting everything he can out of a car.
“The last two years (when Biffle failed to make the chase, after nearly winning the title in 2005) have been more of a shock to me—that he hasn’t been in contention, than seeing him where he is right now.
“In ‘05 he won the most races, and we thought going into ‘06 he was going to be the guy…but he wasn’t around. I was more shocked by that than what I see now.
“We all know Roush has the equipment. Once you get all the right people together, and they get some time together, it’s hard to stop them.”
Juan Pablo Montoya. Friday was fun…for a while. Now the questions are coming. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
At Daytona and Talladega NASCAR has a very strict control process surrounding all teams’ shocks. But elsewhere the policy has become more lax. However teams here do have to bring their racing shocks to a special area of the garage well before qualifying, and its inspectors carefully watch the installation of those shocks, to prevent just such shenanigans. But apparently the shocks here are not inspected before qualifying.
So how did NASCAR’s pre-qualifying inspection fail this time? A NASCAR spokesman said he had no idea how the violation occurred.
Another NASCAR spokesman said it wasn’t not clear yet if the excessive shock pressures were a minor bump-up or a major bump-up.
During the time when numerous teams were using that trick, crew chiefs would pump up shocks several hundred PSI over regular pressures, which raised the danger of the shock itself simply exploding.
Presumably NASCAR will consider further punishment for the Montoya team for the violation. Any penalties would likely be announced late Tuesday afternoon. Crew chief Brian Pattie was unavailable for comment immediately after the NASCAR announcement.
Mark Martin is having a heck of a year….but it’s about time to win one. (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Only two of the 12 championship contenders qualified top-10 for Sunday’s Kansas 400 (billed as the Camping World RV 400 presented by Coleman), and title challengers Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Tony Stewart didn’t even make the top-30. And dejected Kyle Busch, who ought to be running away with the championship, given his league-leading eight wins, will start only 28th.
So Montoya, the ex-Formula One star now in his second season on the Sprint Cup tour, was only one – well, make that two—of Friday’s big surprises at Kansas Speedway…which may yes, be just another of the ‘cookie-cutter’ 1-1/2-milers, but which has become a place where each fall the unexpected has come to be expected.
Like last fall’s rain-soaked controversy, that win by Greg Biffle which still has rivals scratching their heads about just what happened as darkness and rain made the gas-mileage finish sprint much more dramatic than anticipated.
Montoya is a fast driver, to be sure. And he’s learned NASCAR so quickly it’s been amazing. But his equipment simply hasn’t been up to snuff during much of his year and a half on the tour. His motors in particular haven’t seemed as strong as his Ford and Toyota rivals.
Uh-oh, Mr. October is in high gear, and it’s still only September: Jimmie Johnson will be on the pole for Sunday’s Camping World RV 400 at Kansas Speedway (Photo by John Harrelson/Getty Images for NASCAR)
Montoya in a Joe Gibbs’ Toyota might well have won two or three Cup races this season, or so the garage area wisdom goes.
Montoya’s car owner Chip Ganassi, whose operation has struggled, has considered going with Dodge engines leased from Ray Evernham and Ray Gillett and closing down his own in-house engine operation.
In the moments after first winning the pole, Montoya said is his first Cup tour pole “is huge.
“The last few weeks we have been running a different car, and it’s made a big difference. This week in Charlotte (testing) we came out with it, and it was fast, which is really encouraging.
“Qualifying solidified how competitive we can be this weekend…and that’s a good sign of where the company is going.”
There has been considerable speculation about Ganassi possibly merging with another NASCAR team.
By the time NASCAR made the announcement, Montoya had already left the track.
Dodge teams have been under the gun lately, for failing to make the playoffs, and for generally disappointing most of the season.
However Michael Delahanty, Dodge’s NASCAR field boss, has been cracking the whip the last few weeks. That still curious lawsuit that Gillett and Evernham filed against fellow Dodge owner Robby Gordon was resolved last week. Gordon had been getting engines from Gillett-Evernham, but now Gordon has switched to Roger Penske engines, perhaps surprising since Penske doesn’t do such customer engines.
Meanwhile the Kyle Busch saga continues. In an eight-day span, from Loudon to Dover, Busch went from the heavyweight championship favorite to all-but out of the chase, with a broken swaybar and then a blown engine. The swaybar issue was human error; the engine issue was the result of faulty high-tech coatings on a key part.
And Busch isn’t in a good mood: “I’ve been in the chase this is my third year now. I’ve been in this series four years…– so I’ve lost it three times. I think I’ve lost enough.
“Here’s how I look at it: You can’t count on anybody else having a bad race, so realistically we are out of it.
“If they do have a bad race, then it depends on who has the bad race and how bad the race is, for us to get back in it.
“Realistically—if you are not counting on those guys having a bad race—we can’t win eight races in a row and have Carl Edwards or Greg Biffle finishing fifth through 10th every single one of those, and us still win the deal. That ain’t going to happen.
“I’m going to do the same thing I’ve done all year long, that’s not going to change. Everybody says I gave up, but I haven’t given up.
“I’m still going out there to run as hard as I have every single lap to try and win this thing…but realistically the chance isn’t there.
“Really we weren’t supposed to be in the position we’ve been in to win the championship. This was supposed to be the building year, the learning year, getting used to everything at Joe Gibbs…and Toyota coming on board, and getting a relationship going with (crew chief) Steve Addington. So you can’t look at it as a sour year.”
Agree? Disagree? Don’t just brood. Express yourself here, and make your voice heard clearly in NASCAR headquarters in Daytona and Charlotte and in NASCAR race shops throughout North Carolina and the rest of the country.
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If these guys are going to make a good run for the NASCAR championship, they’d better get on the stick: Owner Richard Childress confers with driver Jeff Burton during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Camping World RV 400 at Kansas Speedway on September 26, 2008 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)