Commentary

Johnson showed you can race for points and wins

Battling to the end for a win, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth did NASCAR a favor at Texas, writes Marty Smith.

Updated: November 8, 2007, 11:58 AM ET
By Marty Smith | ESPN.com

For years, drivers engaged in fierce points battles were thought at times to "points race," i.e., throttle back, race not to lose, rather than to win, in the name of big-picture conservation.

It happens at times, certainly, and quite frankly, it separates great drivers from good ones. Every driver in the Cup Series is fast. Those capable of pushing a car to its very limit and not an inch further win. The others wreck.

That line is a thin one and thins further yet for a guy set to take the championship points lead with a runner-up finish. Just bring 'er home and head on out West with a 20-point lead.

Jimmie Johnson shot that theory all to hell Sunday night.

And NASCAR and its fans are the benefactors. That race was good for the sport.

Johnson's prowling aggression in the waning moments of the Dickies 500 made Rick Hendrick a little grayer and Chad Knaus a little balder, but for NASCAR fans all over this country, regardless of allegiance, it was one of the most refreshing moments in years.

Why? It wasn't spawned by a green-white-checker. We see a lot of great finishes in NASCAR these days, but rarely are they set up by one driver blazing through traffic to mow down another. Great finishes these days often are created by late-race cautions and green-white-checker shootouts.

They're exciting -- just not this exciting. This time, the cars were used up, the tires smoldering, the drivers wrestling. It was one team using a two-tire strategy and its driver willing his car to the brink of wrecking to hold off a competitor with fresher tires and an agenda.

Matt Kenseth did a masterful job of fending off several charges by Johnson, knowing all the while he was a sitting duck. (He told me so after the race.) He all but wrecked once, and he admitted he nearly took out both cars. Yet Johnson trusted him.

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There are only four or five guys who have that level of trust from the entire field. Kenseth has proven his merit time and again. Remember Dover last fall? He and Jeff Burton staged an epic duel lap-upon-lap-upon-lap and never so much as touched fenders.

So Johnson drove it in there. Hard.

And it stuck. Barely.

Like Kenseth, Johnson was sideways at times, too. One ill move, and he could have wrecked them both. There was a moment when he backed off, collected his emotions, hit the reset button and set sail again. Knaus asked him to put on his cape. The Superman variety.

Car-owner Hendrick was nervous, thought long and hard about punching that little black button on his radio headset and telling his driver to back off. But he didn't. He supplies Johnson with racecars for moments like this.

This was a championship moment.

Trust the kid, Hendrick thought. He knows the threshold. He knows the stakes.

And he stood on it.

That points-racing theory? Johnson shot some holes in it.

Those Beretta pistols he was holding in Victory Lane stand as proof.

Marty,

I know you hear it all the time (I even complained to you about it a bunch when you were at nascar.com). But the Lucky Dog rule [stinks]. Is NASCAR ever going to let these guys race back to the caution again?

-- Carl Martin, Chattanooga, Tenn.

I highly doubt it, Carl. NASCAR implemented the Lucky Dog "free pass" rule -- which allows the first car a lap down back on the lead lap and no more -- in the name of safety, and it won't budge on that. Bravo. They shouldn't. Nothing should compromise driver safety.

But you're not alone in your disdain for the Lucky Dog rule. Gil Martin, crew chief for Clint Bowyer's No. 07 Chevrolet, had this to say about the Lucky Dog just last weekend:

"The Lucky Dog, I hate that rule," Martin said. "I've hated it since the get-go. We oughta race back to the caution just like we used to. It's ruined racing as far as I'm concerned. It's helped us a couple times, but in the big scheme, I hate it."

Marty,

When there is a wreck and neither car can continue, how is the finishing order determined? A couple weeks ago, David Gilliland spun out and took Mark Martin out with him. Neither car continued, and David finished ahead of Mark in the race. Why?

-- Rick, Chesapeake, Va.

Great question, Rick. I spoke with Nextel Cup race director David Hoots about this for you, and he explained that in instances in which multiple cars are rendered immobile in an accident, NASCAR determines their respective final finishing positions in relation to one another by reverting back to the positions in which the cars were running in relation to one another the previous time they crossed the start/finish line.

Also, it depends when NASCAR's scoring officials are notified as to whether or not a car is "out." Oftentimes, two cars enter the garage and the official on site immediately approaches the crew chief.

The crew chief will either make the call that they are out -- which is immediately relayed to scoring via radio -- or the official will say "hold score for car x," meaning the team believes they can fix the damage and return to competition.

They might end up realizing the car can't be fixed, and in the meantime, five other cars have said they are out.

NASCAR also makes sure the cars that are being worked on don't enter the garage and hang out for 200 laps before proclaiming themsleves out -- after 15 other cars have been declared out -- to gain positions in the final order.

Did that make any sense? I tried, man.

I learned something this week. Thanks for that question, Rick.

Marty,

What will NASCAR teams do with all the non-COT cars after this year? I read that Tony Stewart is buying some from JGR for his ARCA team. Any chance I can get one for my front yard?

-- Rick, Latrobe, Pa.

Chances are you will have the opportunity to score that Home Depot Chevy lawn ornament if you so desire, Rick. I asked several Cup teams what they plan to do with their inventory of now-obsolete Cup cars, and most plan to sell them to ARCA or Busch East Series teams that still can use them -- for 30 cents on the dollar, if they're lucky. Ridiculous.

Some organizations already are selling off cars that aren't slated to run again in Cup competition.

Call the shop, man. Ask for J.D. Maybe you'll get a deal.

Marty,

Many times when the television is showing a driver, his hand position is usually in an 8 o'clock- 4 o'clock position, not the more conventional 10 o'clock-2 o'clock position. Is there a reason for this?

-- Bob in Minden

Interesting observation, Bob. I've noticed similar hand-positioning at times, myself. It really is all about the driver's preference, what's comfortable, but one driver got all geometric on me in his explanation:

A driver can have his hands positioned on the steering wheel at 9 and 3, but due to setup and the front end geometry of the racecar, his hands naturally move to 10 and 4 in order to keep the car moving in a straight line while driving down the straightaway.

Some drivers, like Mark Martin, start with their hands at 9 and 3, but when entering the corner take their right hand off the wheel and put it next to their left hand, so they are at 10 and 6, or 10 and 7, while cornering.

I really wish I could post my buddy's explanation e-mail verbatim. It is one of the funniest things I've ever seen.

Hey Marty,

I was wondering what you had heard about the possible sale of Bill Davis Racing to Jaques Villeneuve or his associates. How is this going to affect Dave Blaney and his prospects for 2008?

It would be a shame for Blaney if the rumors are true and Villeneuve got those points with this possible sale, as he has worked his tail off at getting that car in the top 35. Thanks for taking my question and keep up the great work on this column.

-- Nicki, Toledo, Ohio

According to Villeneuve's business manager, Craig Pollack, whom I spoke with last week, Villeneuve has no desire to be a NASCAR team owner. Pollack, however, does.

He told me he is looking to purchase outright, or buy into, any one of five organizations -- not just Bill Davis Racing. He wasn't at liberty to disclose the teams with which he has spoken.

He said he has been surveying the possibility of buying into NASCAR for more than a year, studying the market, and would like to have a deal done by year's end.

It's unknown how a deal between Pollack and Davis would affect Blaney. Blaney has a contract to drive the No. 22 Toyota in 2008, with Caterpillar's blessing. Fact is, though, it's the owner's prerogative to move owners' points wherever he pleases within his organization. I don't see this affecting Blaney.

On that note, a retraction, of sorts: I incorrectly answered a question a couple weeks back about Penkse Racing and its ability to move owners' points from Kurt Busch's No. 2 to Sam Hornish Jr.'s Cup ride.

It initially was explained to me by NASCAR that in order for Hornish to take advantage of Busch's points -- and champion's provisional -- he would have to drive the No. 2 car for the first five races. That is inaccurate.

Last weekend at Texas, I spoke with Nextel Cup director John Darby for clarification. He explained to me that the owner has the ability to move the owners' points accumulated by his teams freely among those teams. He likened it to owning a blue house that has $100,000 equity. You can paint the house green, and it still has $100,000 equity.

So, all said, Penske can assign the 2007 owners' points from the No. 2 car to Hornish's car in 2008, thereby guaranteeing him a starting position under the Top-35 rule. Busch, then, would either be forced to qualify into the events via time trials -- which is highly likely, anyway -- or utilize the past-champion's provisional he earned with the 2004 title.

My apologies to Dave O'Leary from Methuen, Mass., for incorrectly answering his question.

Hey Marty,

With Carl Edwards winning the Busch title with so much room to spare, I've noticed a lot of talk, and a big deal being made, about how close the owners' title is (I believe RCR has the lead right now).

I'm wondering why, back in 2003 when Brian Vickers won the Busch title, no one mentioned RCR winning the owners' title. In fact, NASCAR even asked them not to celebrate it and overshadow Vickers' title. Yet, this year, it's OK for everyone to talk about it.

Not that I don't think it's a story worth talking about, but it's just one of those deals where perception makes it look like NASCAR was being considerate of Hendrick back in 2003 but doesn't give Roush the same consideration in 2007?

-- 3-man, Hometown Unknown

Hmmm. Could it be the difference between a full-time Busch Series-only driver winning the driver's title then, and a full-time Cup driver winning it now, A.I.? Just a thought.

Marty,

Why isn't anyone paying any attention to the record Kyle Busch set in Atlanta? Namely -- he's the only driver to ever win Truck, Busch and Cup races in the same year three times. Back-to-back-to-back, even.

He had been tied with Harvick for getting the triple-crown win twice. With Harvick also having done it back-to-back.

-- M. B. Voelker, Hometown Unknown

And to think, he's 22 years old. It'll happen again.

Busch will be scary once he matures mentally a bit more. His maturation throughout the second half of this season is readily obvious. He has every bit as much talent as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson and Tony Stewart, so as he learns to negotiate races better mentally, he'll only get better. Scary.

That's it for this week. Time to head north to fulfill groomsman's duties in my best man's wedding.

Atlantic City will never be the same.

Marty Smith is a contributor to ESPN's NASCAR coverage. He can be reached at ESPNsider@aol.com.