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First Jimmie Johnson, now Carl Edwards: championship game face. And yet the playoffs are still three weeks off

  Ryan Newman: On the pole at 122.811 mph....but teammate Tony Stewart qualified dead last. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   Ryan Newman followed up Wednesday's Modified win here with a pole-winning run Friday night for Saturday's Bristol 500. But if he plans to win the 500, he'll almost certainly have to handle Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards.
    And if you think Jimmie Johnson was putting on his championship game face last Sunday at Michigan, you should have been eyeing Edwards here Friday.
    It's like the Sprint Cup playoffs have already begun. And the tension is suddenly quite heavy, even though the playoffs are still three weeks away.

    "It's time to get going…..and what makes me so nervous is that broken sparkplug at Michigan cost me 39 points – 39 points…." Edwards was saying almost somberly, despite taking the other front row spot for the 7:30 p.m. ET start.
   "Kyle Busch and I went into Sunday's race tied in points….and he won the race and I finished 36th. And now I'm 39 points behind. In just one race.
   "That's why you see the pressure….."
   And yet Kyle Busch appears loose and happy, and quickly dismissing that run-in with Elliott Sadler in Wednesday's Truck race.
   But then maybe Busch, who has never really been in the heat of a Cup championship battle, just doesn't yet realize the game has already begun.

   Carl Edwards opened the season as the hottest driver in NASCAR.
   He could easily have won the year's first five straight races.
   And he had a dominant car, with crew chief Bob Osborne.
   But then he got entangled in those contract renewal negotiations, and somehow Edwards has gotten off track.


    Carl Edwards: versus Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch for the title? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


Even so, he was still atop the Sprint Cup standings just three weeks ago, despite a ragged stretch since early June.
   Now he's slipped to fourth. Of course it doesn't really matter, since he's a shoe-in to make the championship playoffs, which open in Chicago Sept. 18th.
   Still, with Jimmie 'Five-time' Johnson now having already put on his championship game face, Edwards needs to regain momentum for the start of the 10-race chase.
    Edwards, despite that broken sparkplug 36th at Michigan, is still pretty much as loose and cool and funny as ever, which is remarkable, considering what all he's gone through lately. But after Friday's qualifying Edwards, like Johnson last Sunday evening, was wearing a different, more serious face.
    And maybe he is questioning why, with all his talent and horsepower and engineering, and good luck too, he has only won once this year, at Las Vegas back in early March….
    And also consider that Johnson too has won only once.
   The key stories this summer have been not only Edwards (relative) 'struggles' but the decline of fortunes for the rest of the Jack Roush camp and for the Richard Childress camp (where Clint Bowyer is now embroiled in a fight to find a job for 2012) and for the Chip Ganassi-Juan Montoya-Jamie McMurray camp….and the collapse of Denny Hamlin's title bid…and the surge of Brad Keselowski and Roger Penske.
    Kyle Busch, now with his league-leading fourth Cup tour victory still fresh, at Michigan six days ago, is the favorite in Saturday night's Bristol 500. He's won five times here, he's got the best finishing average….and he's won four of the last five at this high-banked half-mile.
    However if you're looking for someone to upset Busch, Edwards is a great pick. And Edwards is fast.

     Clint Bowyer: Who will he drive for in 2012? And who will be the sponsor? He's hot at the media for trying to piece it all together (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


Looking at some of the storylines:
    -- Mark Martin, who hasn't had a great season, needs to get something going….because his 2012 plans appear quite up in the air, despite his protestations that he's not a bit worried.
    -- Matt Kenseth is still looking for sponsorship for 2012.
   -- David Ragan needs to do something flashy, because that UPS sponsorship is up for grabs.
   -- Kasey Kahne runs well here and he needs to do something to help the Jay Frye operation, which is losing major sponsor Red Bull at the end of the season.
   -- Brian Vickers needs to get something going soon too. He doesn't have a ride for next year, and he's not even in the rumor mill.
   -- And Tony Stewart, well, he hasn't had a great season, and Friday was a real downer. Teammate Newman won the pole….and Stewart himself was dead last in qualifying.
   Edwards knows he's got good speed here, but he's keeping an eye on Johnson: "I think Jimmie is real fast. His car is very good.
   "But everyone is so close it is just going to be a track position race. Qualifying will be important -- a good pit stall will be huge."
    It's not fair to say Edwards is in a slump, but he doesn't seem to have quite the edge he did earlier this season.
   And that Michigan sparkplug is haunting him.
    "It is just racing luck right now," Edwards insists. "We had (Roush) cars on Sunday that were very good (Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth), cars that could have won that race out of the Roush Fenway camp…and I felt like ours was one of them."

    Edwards, considering the championship playoffs ahead, and Johnson's five straight wins, and Edwards still looking for his first, quotes Sir Edmund Hillary:
    "It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.'

     Jimmie Johnson: put on his championship game face at Michigan. And now Carl Edwards is following suit. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR) 


"I've only had a couple shots at the championship (2005 and 2008)….and, maybe wrongly, I haven't looked at the chase that way -- It hasn't felt like this massive amount of pressure.
    "When things are going well, I've been having a good time. And when they don't…I look back and think that maybe I should have taken it a little more seriously.
    "I didn't realize how much I was learning in 2008. When I look back on 2008, it just was fun, all coming together. I don't know if I took it seriously enough – 'Hey, this is an opportunity to win the championship.'
    "I wrecked at Talladega (in late 2008), and then we had trouble at Charlotte, the ignition trouble, and all of a sudden I was like 'Man, it was going so well, what went wrong there?'
    "I learned from that that you can't take steps backwards, especially in the chase. You have to push forward; you can't hurt yourself…because there are things that will happen that are outside of your control. Like that spark plug last week, or ignition boxes."
    And 2009 was a winless disaster, particularly surprising since Edwards went into that season as pre-season pick for the championship.
    "My experience was massively humbling in 2009. To go into that season with such high expectations…." Edwards said slowly.
    "That was tough. It is tough in general when you aren't running well, but when you expect to run really well and you run poorly it is very tough.
    "You just have to keep going, keep digging. You can't give up.
    "That is the trick: not giving up."

    But -- and this is both refreshing and yet emotionally draining -- Edwards also understands there is much, much more to life than just this NASCAR stuff:
    "You guys know how it is -- our lives are fast-paced, and we are going all the time. Last week I got the chance to go out to the USS Eisenhower and visit some sailors…and that was one of those moments that stopped me in my tracks. I realized that these people are out there 18 hour days on the deck of a ship, one of the most dangerous environments on earth, protecting our freedoms.. That struck me.
    "And my first trip to the Aflac Cancer Center was a huge eye opener too. For any of you guys who haven't been to the Aflac Cancer Center, I would recommend you go. They treat over 6,000 children a year, whether they can pay or not.
    "The kids show up and have cancer or blood disorders, or any number of ailments, and they treat them.
    "The first time I went there, I went there kind of going through our week and we had to take this trip…and I got there, and, man, it was a moment that made me realize the things I stress about are nothing compared to what these little kids are going through. And they have smiles on their faces.
     "It is good for me to stop and realize what is going on in the world for real…."


  Kurt Busch: one of Roger Penske's two stars...but upstaged lately by younger teammate Brad Keselowski (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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