Fans may not like it, but expect this Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship to be decided by pit strategy more than anything else. At least that is the opinion of Tony Stewart, who won last week after he took two tires to gain track position late when several other contenders took four.
In the past at most tracks, taking four tires in such situations was a no-brainer. In today's NASCAR, however, the tires are so good -- too good, if you listen to some drivers -- and the cars are so equal that gaining track position is more important than handling. Stewart believes the improved technology has been a good and bad thing for the sport, much like it has been for several open-wheel series.
"It's more difficult now (to gain positions on the track) than it was 11 years ago when I started," Stewart said. "It used to be that if you could make it 50 laps on fuel, and you had to run a full fuel run, you could not run 100 percent and be fast for 50 laps. You would be fast for 25 laps; then you would fall off the face of the earth. The way the tires are now, you can run 100 percent for 50 laps and you're going to be in pretty good shape. With that it's made track position a little more important.
"It's not anybody's fault. There's nothing that's drastically wrong; it's just technology. It's like I've said before, it happened to Formula One, it happened to Indy Car racing and it's happening to us. There's no easy solution to that."
n Reading between the lines.
Sometimes it's the little things that make listening to drivers in their pre-race news conferences worthwhile. Take, for instance, Jimmie Johnson's give-and-take with the media Friday afternoon in Fontana.
Johnson was asked about a comment Juan Pablo Montoya made just before Johnson entered the media center. Asked if the third year in Sprint Cup was the make-or-break season for most drivers, Montoya said equipment, more than experience, makes the difference. As an example, he said that any driver in Hendrick Motorsports stuff should be good right away.
Johnson's take on Montoya's remark may have provided more ammo for those who aren't Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans.
"I'd say for the majority, yes, I agree," Johnson said. "I really think, though, it boils down to people. You look at the environment Casey Mears was in and different crew chiefs and a lot of changing, and it led to his departure, and obviously Mark (Martin) being available sped that up as well.
"I had that fear in my own mind when I started at Hendrick. Jeff (Gordon) handpicked me and put me in the equipment he won with the year before. And I knew that I had to get the job done."
It's hard to believe Johnson would have aimed anything at Junior, but there will be some who take it that way.
n Listen up, Danica.
Montoya also had a bit of advice for Danica Patrick, who is close to completing a deal with Hendrick and JR Motorsports to run a few Nationwide Series events next year.
Montoya, who has joined NASCAR's elite drivers after two less-than-stellar seasons in his move from open-wheel racing, believes Patrick would be better suited to go full-time with the stock cars instead of trying to run a full IRL season and the part-time Nationwide run.
"I wouldn't be driving both cars, to be honest," Montoya said. "I just wouldn't. I wouldn't do it because they drive so different. You're going to get comfortable in one thing and then you're going to make it to the other thing, and every time it's going to be like night and day. When I drive the 24 hours (of Daytona) and I get to Daytona, it feels really weird, and I've been driving stock cars for three years now. I just wouldn't do it."
n Martin's secret is out, sort of.
Martin gets asked the same question every week, and he basically gives the same answer. Are you a better driver now that you're 50, and if so, why?
The answers are, "In some ways," and "I can't answer that."
Friday, however, he indicated one secret: wife Arlene. Martin said he now knows how to leave the stress of his job at the track, unlike earlier in his career.
"You know, especially since I started driving the 5 car," he said, "I leave 80 percent of the racing there and don't bring it into the house, and I definitely don't bring the disappointments or problems that we might experience into the home. And that has worked really well.
"We have shared all the excitement and enthusiasm together for all the good things that have happened, and she is my partner for 25 years. And I wouldn't be the person I am today if she hadn't took me to raise back in 1984."
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...