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A wild day at Kentucky Speedway, Jimmie Johnson edging Kyle Busch for the 400 pole

A wild day at Kentucky Speedway, Jimmie Johnson edging Kyle Busch for the 400 pole

Weird weather, typical for northern Kentucky, broke the back of 110 degree temps, for a while at least at Kentucky Speedway. That could be a big boost to ticket sales for the 400... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   SPARTA, Ky.
   A freak and unexpected cold front, with maybe 60 mph winds, roared through Kentucky Speedway midway through Friday qualifying for Saturday night's Kentucky 400, dropping temps from a heat index of 110 degrees down to 79. And Jimmie Johnson took good advantage of the suddenly cool but freaky weather to grab the pole at a track record 181.818 mph.
   That's just a tick faster than the man who won this race a year ago, Kyle Busch in a route.
    Picking a winner in the 400?
   Well, with 12 different winners in the NASCAR tour's first 16 races, it might not be that easy....even though three men this season have seemed head-and-shoulders ahead of the pack.
   Johnson, hot the past six weeks, is a good one. Maybe teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. too.
    But Jeff Gordon, who must be getting desperate for a day of just no bad luck, not even some good luck, is probably the best bet.
    Talk about due.



   Hey, Mr. Spaceman! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     Matt Kenseth's looming split with long-time team owner Jack Roush remains one of the season's biggest stories, just breaking this week.
     However another hot item is the future of Dodge in NASCAR, with Roger Penske's pending move to Ford for 2013.
    Will Dodge even be back in Sprint Cup next season?
    Beth Paretta, Chrysler's director of marketing and operations for racing, yesterday issued a brief statement:
    "While we continue to evaluate plans in NASCAR for 2013 and beyond, we have no commitments with any partners at this time.
    "We continue to be pleased with the amount of interest from the media and fans in our motorsports program and will continue to follow our process as established in a timely manner. When decisions are finalized, we will announce them at that time."
    That is obviously not a ringing affirmation of any Dodge commitment to NASCAR.
    With no team owners or drivers yet signed for 2013, and with a Dodge engine program still questionable, and the calendar nearing July, the company's continued refusal to commit to NASCAR for next season becomes all the more ominous.


  No day for tents at the track (Photo:" Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Friday's other significant story may be the dust-up between Brad Keselowski and Juan Pablo Montoya, which drew a warning from NASCAR.
    During the day's first practice, Keselowski was at speed when Montoya, coming up on the track slower, pulled up in front of  Keselowski, who bounced into the wall and was forced to a backup. Then in the second practice Keselowski expressed his displeasure with Montoya, banging into him several times.
    Keselowski wound up in the NASCAR hauler, though he and NASCAR president Mike Helton both insisted it was voluntary. Helton said he did warn both drivers "That's enough."
    Keselowski: "Hopefully it's something he and I can work through. If not, so be it.
   "I can't let people push me around. That's something I won't stand for."


   Sponsors, sponsors, the sport is all about sponsors, more than ever (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Greg Biffle, the man chasing teammate Kenseth for the 'regular season' title right now, in a torrid duel, says he too was "a little surprised" when Kenseth confirmed Tuesday he wouldn't be back next season.
   "Matt and I are good friends, but we don't talk about business much when we are together, other than racing," Biffle says. "We don't talk contracts.
    "I am going to lose a good teammate; I am not going to lose a friend."
    Carl Edwards, Kenseth's other teammate, says Kenseth has been "a great teammate.
     "It took us a long time to figure out one another; but I felt that over the last few years he has been as close a friend in the garage as anyone.
     "I have a ton of respect for Matt; he is a heck of a man, and a great driver.
     "He has been a huge part of developing things on our team. He does a really good job of testing and relaying information.
     "So there is definitely a huge loss for us... and a gain for whoever ends up with Matt as a driver."
     The other side of the picture, as Edwards well understands, is the opportunity now given Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
       "If Jeff Burton hadn't moved over to Richard Childress', I would have never gotten the opportunity I have at Roush. And same with Chad Little leaving and Kurt Busch coming in.
    "Jack has developed guys who have had success.
     "Losing Matt is bad, but the potential gain with Ricky could make it a net positive in the long run."
     Actually Stenhouse was apparently destined to move up to Cup next season anyway, with Roush moving back to four teams. So Kenseth's departure is more a win for Trevor Bayne, who Roush says will now be his fourth driver.


   Teammates Jimmie Johnson (L) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Either could win this 400 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
   Kenseth, despite the distracting pressure of his private negotiations, has come close to two more wins, at Dover and Michigan, in the past few weeks.
    "I don't think there is anyone more mentally tough than Matt Kenseth," Edwards says.
    "I would imagine the difficult stuff is behind him now, and he can go out and race.
    "Definitely that stuff weighs on you. He did a really good job of keeping it out of the spotlight.
    "I should maybe talk to him about that. That part was no fun last year."
    Edwards in fact was on the verge of signing with the very same team that Kenseth is now apparently heading to -- Joe Gibbs'.
     "A guy has to do what he thinks is best for him and his career... and Matt didn't get to where he is by making poor decisions.
     "He is making a decision he thinks is best. I respect that, and I think everyone should."


    Meanwhile down at the other end of the top-20, is it time for laggard title contenders to start looking for the Panic Button?
   Maybe some, but not Kyle Busch, the guy who won here a year ago.
    All he needs to make the playoffs, most likely, is just one more win in these next 10 races, to go with his Richmond win.
    However Busch blew engines at Dover, Pocono, and Michigan.
    "It's definitely frustrating beyond belief," Busch says of those issues.
    "But we've been fast everywhere, so we know we have speed.  
      "It's just a matter of getting to the end without a problem.
    "I think Clint Bowyer had a similar issue I had at Pocono, but he made it to the end. And Mark Martin had an issue I think at Michigan. So we got some work to do."
     And maybe Busch himself too: six men have led more laps this season -- Jimmie Johnson, Biffle, Gordon, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., and Denny Hamlin.
    "Maybe I'm too patient," Busch ponders. "I'm sitting 12th right now;  I haven't been back this far in a long time.
    "There was the early stretch where everybody thought 'What's wrong?'  
     "Then when we won at Richmond and clicked off five top-fives in a row, it was 'Oh well, he's back.'  
     "Now we've had some bad luck again.  I guess it comes in cycles."


 Jeff Gordon: doesn't need good luck, just no more bad luck (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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