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It's Kyle Busch on the pole, David Reutimann by his side, for Saturday's 400....and JJ and JG right behind them

  Kyle Busch in the candy machine (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   It's been a topsy-turvy spring on the stock car trail, and with all the overtime finishes lately, and all the strange and unexpected late-race pit calls, picking someone to win Saturday night's 400-lapper – the Heath Calhoun 400, named by sponsor Crown Royal for the Army veteran who lost both legs in an RPG attack in Iraq – is risky business.
   Denny Hamlin might be a logical pick. Hometown boy. Hot right now, with two wins in the last four. But he says he doesn't feel all that comfortable here, though he did win for the first time last fall.
   Tony Stewart might be another logical pick. But he's not been in a great mood this season, for some reason,
    Jimmie Johnson, another. Three wins already. But there's that strange little tiff with teammate Jeff Gordon (who some here think might be trying to play with Johnson's head, to get  him off his game)....
    Gordon too. For a man who's been so strong all spring, he's still winless.
    But just maybe this is going to be Kyle Busch's night.
    Busch, though winless since Bristol last August, and David Reutimann went one-two in Friday qualifying to take the front row for the Saturday 400 (7:30 p.m. ET), with Johnson and Gordon – how ironic -- right behind them.
   "Charlotte, Bristol, Chicago, Richmond, those are my favorite tracks," Busch said. "This is a fun and exciting race track...and something just fits here for me.
   "Hope we can get Dave Rogers his first win as crew chief here."
    Busch, remember, dumped long-time crew chief Steve Addington (now with older brother Kurt Busch) last fall in an odd move, after Busch and Addington won 13 races together over two years, more than anyone else but Johnson.

   How ironic (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   And then what about Juan Pablo Montoya....If he could just catch a little luck, he'd be on top of the world. Montoya has been one of the fastest drivers on the stock car tour this spring, but he's still looking for that first win of the year.
   Here, in Saturday night's 400-lapper?
  "To be honest with you, I don't like this place," Montoya says bluntly.
    "It's hard because it's not like anything else we do -- We practice and qualify the same day, and it's an impound race. You practice during the day, and you get no practice at all at night, then you race at night."
    Montoya was fast in practice but fell way off in qualifying.
    But that was pretty typical of the warm day – and then cool evening -- for a number of drivers: "We were struggling so much early, we were hoping for anything," Reutimann said.
    "It seems like a lot of guys are struggling to get grip," Johnson said. "Track position will be tough here, so pit selection (based on qualifying) will be important.
   "The cars are moving around so much I don't know how you're going to finish a pass. And we weren't at all happy with our car in race setup; so we're playing catch-up right now."
    So, given the odd pit calls in the final miles at Bristol and Martinsville and other tracks lately – giving up track position by pitting for tires with just a few laps to go – what strategy to expect here in the 400?
    And, given the rash of green-white-checkered overtime finishes lately (Talladega finished with a record three GWC), what are the odds of this thing going into overtime too?
    Montoya came within a hair of a breakthrough win at Talladega last Sunday. "We've been good every week," he says. "It's crazy: we haven't been off the pace yet anywhere. 
    "When we're running really bad, we're running 10th or 12th; that is really good."
    But those DNFs have forced him to play catch-up in the points. "We're behind, and we're trying to make up ground," Montoya, 20th in the standings and 123 points behind the 12-man September cut.

    The story of the week, though, or perhaps the question of the week, is the Jimmie Johnson-Jeff Gordon tiff.
    What the heck is going on here?
    Looks like Gordon is taking a page from the Dale Earnhardt playbook and trying to rattle Johnson's cage.
    Heck, nothing else seems to slow down the four-time champ – and current Sprint Cup tour leader.
    Why isn't anyone else playing that game with Johnson? "Heck, you can't hit what you can't catch," quips Clint Bowyer.
    Johnson himself seems all but unflappable, despite the series of run-ins with his teammate.
    Car owner Rick Hendrick hooked up a three-way phone call with Johnson and Gordon to check things out.
    Johnson had taken the blame for the Talladega incident that took out Gordon and Jeff Burton. But Gordon, before hearing Johnson's side, ripped his teammate.
    "I think when Jeff jumped out of the car, he didn't realize it was just a bad decision on my part, to come down and try to get in front in that lane," Johnson said of his controversial move, which effective chopped off Gordon, who was launching a late race running pass.
    "So our conversation was pretty good, to be honest with you.
    "It was just a mistake I made.
     "And unfortunately, coming off the heels of Texas (where Gordon had body-slammed Johnson at one point), and the fact that Jeff crashed after that, and the emotions were high...and he got out of the car and said some things that he probably didn't want to..."
     And what does Johnson think of media reaction:  "When somebody gets out of a car and says pretty pointed things, it gives everybody the opportunity to chase it down and see what's going on," Johnson concedes.
    "I think the lesson in all of it is we're very competitive guys and emotions are high regardless if it's a teammate or not.
    "Everything's in good shape...and we'll just make sure we stay away from each other for a week or two and not let anything else fester this thing along, and we'll be fine."
    But how are these guys going to stay away from each other when they're both running for wins?
    "It's not like you can just turn the hazards on and act like there's not racing going on," Johnson said.
    "We've done this for nine years without any issues.
     "Unfortunately we've had magnets on our cars the last couple of weeks.
     "But we'll get through it and move on. We'll be fine."
     "It wasn't an intentional situation where I was trying to crash him. Heck, I was doing what you do in the draft -- which is just go down and block a lane and then try to have that lane push you.
    "I misjudged it a little bit in the mirror, with the closing rate (Gordon was considerably faster at that moment), and he had to go out of bounds to not run into the back of me.
    "But he was definitely frustrated with what had been going on from the week before.
    "And he's been so close to some wins, I think there were some other things layered in there as well."
    The bottom line: Johnson has three wins this season and Gordon is winless....and over the past two years Johnson has won 17 times to Gordon's one. And of  course Johnson has won four straight championships.

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The starting lineup for Saturday night's Richmond 400




   Crew chief Dave Rogers: looking for his first tour win with Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Don't forget Reutimann, he

Don't forget Reutimann, he has ran strong all year except when his engine failed. If Waltrip would have an alliance with Gibbs they would already have won 1 or 2 races. TRD engines just don't last!!

Denny Hamlin was talking

Denny Hamlin was talking earlier this season about engines, and he said he didnt think his stuff was up with the other manufacturers. i thought that was odd. if i ever seen mark cronquist again at a track, i'll ask him; but he's doing banker's hours these days for gibbs.....lol. i do agree that MWR hasn't performed as strongly as i felt it would...and i use marcos ambrose as a baseline, 'cause i know he'll kick ass whenever he can....

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