1. Juan Montoya is the only driver to post top-five finishes in all three Chase races to date. Does that mean he\’s progressed from dark horse to favorite?
David Caraviello: He\’s the same thing he\’s always been — the most dangerous driver in the Chase. Hard to call him a favorite with Mark Martin leading the points and Jimmie Johnson lurking. Those two are the favorites. But JPM is right there. They slip and he keeps this up, he could very well win the whole thing. And if that happens, nobody should be surprised.
Dave Rodman: By no means is he the favorite — that\’s still the three-time defending champion\’s domain. And Montoya\’s no more legitimate than he was in the beginning, though what he has done is prove it to a lot more people.
Joe Menzer: Come on, now. The favorite? That\’s pushing it, don\’t you think, for someone who has yet to win a Cup race on an oval? The favorites remain Jimmie Johnson and Mark Martin and Tony Stewart, although maybe not in that order. The prohibitive favorite remains Johnson. By a fair amount, too.
David Caraviello: Still — that No. 42 team said they were going to turn it up a notch in the postseason, and they absolutely have. Juan had what, two top-fives the whole year before the Chase began? And now he has three in three Chase races? Clearly, Brian Pattie and company knew what they had, and were just waiting for the right time to unleash it.
Dave Rodman: I think what Juan has done is emphasize that the champion\’s average finish is going to be even more outrageous this year than it was the last couple of seasons. As I wrote Tuesday, what we have now is exponentially the best Chase ever (read more), and Montoya is an integral part of it. Now all we need is for Greg Biffle to listen to his crew chief at California and uncork one and we\’ll downright have a seven-man Chase. And that, boys, is unprecedented.
Joe Menzer: Well, I think it might have more to do with — and Juan has talked about this — the pressure they felt of just making the Chase. They were so careful not to take chances that might have involved more risk than potential reward that they weren\’t as relaxed as they are now. And Juan is driving more aggressively now as a result, too.
David Caraviello: Funny how everyone before New Hampshire thought the champion\’s average finish would increase from the 5.2 Jimmie recorded last year. Seems like the opposite is happening. Seems like you\’re going to have to be in or around the top five every week, once again.
Joe Menzer: Those No. 42 guys might just have the right attitude to be there at the end. Their preseason goal was to make the Chase and they did. Now anything they do on top of that is icing on the cake — but, of course, Juan wants to win races. And remember, he should have won at Indy — but he blew it by speeding on pit road. Had he won that one, he\’d be even closer to the front now.
Dave Rodman: Well, if he keeps going like he is, he will win — and probably a couple. He was crying like a baby with 30 laps to go Sunday, but when it came time to put up or shut up, he shut up and got up on the wheel. As we all know, it was a sight to behold.
Joe Menzer: No question he was the most fun to watch throughout the course of the Kansas race. He was passing guys all over the place … of course, so was the Biff, who came from 31st at the start.
David Caraviello: Fifty-one points, the gap separating Montoya from Martin, isn\’t much at this juncture. But with JJ pushing the pack, I still think Juan is going to have to win at some point. Johnson could very well win at California, Charlotte, and Martinsville — three of his best tracks — and if he does that, the title is his. It\’s going to take other drivers getting to Victory Lane to prevent that from happening. And for all JPM has done, can he do that on an oval? We all believe so, but we haven\’t seen it yet.
Dave Rodman: It will be real interesting to see if the racing we\’ve seen so far this Chase extends to California. God knows it could use it.
David Caraviello: No question, Dave, it\’s a pivotal weekend for Auto Club Speedway. It needs a good crowd. This is what it wanted — a Chase date in better weather than it had before. We\’ll see if it works.
Joe Menzer: As good as Jimmie is, I don\’t see him winning the next three. Let\’s not forget that Stewart put himself squarely back in the hunt with his win at Kansas, and you could argue that the top six are still well within striking distance.
Dave Rodman: With the way JJ ran at Kansas — though it could have been a strategic gaffe, I guess — if Juan rings up 10 top-fives, and with the way Mark Martin is running, I\’d stack that up against anybody for the championship. Like I said, the best Chase of the six, by far.