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It's Dover, Round Three, and Jimmie Johnson's the man to beat

It's Dover, Round Three, and Jimmie Johnson's the man to beat

Jimmie Johnson, in victory lane at Dover in June (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   Well, the first two events of stock car racing's 10-week playoffs have been less than thrilling.
   To be honest this concrete track, fast and brutal, may not feature much better action, unless an early race pile-up coming up off turn two jumbles things up and forces teams to scramble.
   Maybe NASCAR could hire a couple of those Lingerie League refs to liven things up.
   What's happened to the door-to-door racing that NASCAR fans love?
    Summing up the chase so far:
    Brad Keselowski's pit road work at Chicago was enough to beat, and anger, Jimmie Johnson, the day's dominant runner.
    Denny Hamlin was untouchable at Loudon, N.H.
    That's really about it.
    And here, just about everyone, including Johnson, is looking for a Johnson romp. He won the spring race. In fact he's won four of the last seven at this high-banked one-mile, and led nearly 300 miles each time.
    The rest will probably just try to maintain and not make mistakes, like running out of gas.
   The 12-man chase appears down to four, heading into Round Three: Johnson, Hamlin, Tony Stewart and Keselowski.
    And, as usual, the points system doesn't seem to reward winning as much as it penalizes a driver for a bad day.
    However Johnson rarely has a bad day. And his game plan this fall seems clear -- get out front, force everyone else to chase him, and wait for them all to make some mistakes.

  What in the world has happened to Carl Edwards this season? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
    Now racing fortunes do wax and wane, but the last two season's the collapse of the previous year's hot dog has been really rather surprising. Hamlin, nearly the champ in 2010, falling apart in 2011; Carl Edwards, nearly the champ in 2011, falling apart in 2012.
    Hamlin now seems back in form, finally.
    Still no turnaround in sight. Actually things appear to be getting worse, if anything.
    At this point one year ago, Edward was about the hottest thing in NASCAR. Yes, Stewart came in here fresh off wins in the first two playoff runs, but it was still unclear if his stunning turnaround was solid or just a blip.
   Edwards, though with only that Las Vegas win, was clearly the best all-around driver on the tour: six top-10s in the 10 events leading up to this 400....and 19 top-10s in the season's 28 starts.
   This time Edwards has only two top-10s in the past 10 races, his average finish has been a mediocre 15.750, compared to last fall's league-leading 10.6 coming here.
    So this weekend Edwards is just another footnote to the chase, one of the men on the outside.
    And his two teammates, Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth, who are in the chase, are at risk of becoming footnotes too.
   Since winning the Michigan 400 last month Biffle has hit a wall, with a very mediocre finishing average of 14.8.
   Kenseth, over the last 10 races, has slumped to a 16.7 average finish.
   Neither Biffle nor Kenseth is showing much championship potential.


  Jack Roush, crew chief Matt Puccia and Greg Biffle, just moments before the start of last weekend's New Hampshire 300 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Edwards: "It's almost like the biggest goal for me is the 2013 championship.  This is the earliest I've ever started thinking about a championship for next year, but that's what we're doing."
   What went so wrong? 
   "We had a heart-to-heart about a week ago, and we said 'Hey, look: If we can just back up a few feet and look at this thing objectively, where are we losing these races?   Where is our performance?'
    "And we have specific areas; we have about three or four things we need to be better at.
   "We've got to be faster on pit road.  We're half-a-second to a second behind on pit road...and that starts with me getting in the box.
    "We have to qualify better consistently.
    "And the balance of our race cars has to be a little bit different than it is now.
   "The good things we have are our engines are really great and we don't have a lot of parts breaking.
    "I feel our problems are pretty simple to fix."

   Well, there may be more to all this that just that.
   Team owner Jack Roush, reviewing 2011, said in pre-season he wanted his teams to gamble more, take bigger risks, because winning -- and not winning -- was the key to last season's championship. But it's not at all clear is any of Roush's teams are taking any bigger swings at it this year during races.
    Another point -- Edwards simply isn't leading laps.
    Now leading races hasn't been his forte or game plan over the years, but Jimmie Johnson seems to be making out quite well by putting his car out front and leading.
    Edwards has led more than one lap in only two races this season; on the other hand Johnson has led more than one lap in 18 of the 28 races.



   Has title contender Matt Kenseth (R) hit a wall? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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