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Is Jimmie Johnson once again back as Mr. Charlotte....or will the Gibbs guys dominate the 600?

  Brian Vickers (R) is sidelined while being treated for blood clots, andhe's getting a look at another side of this sport, doing some TV work and also feeding Casey Mears (L) as much information as he can about the new cars he's running, as Vickers' sub (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Certainly curious.
   Mr. NASCAR, Jimmie Johnson, is renowned for his dominating runs at Charlotte Motor Speedway. In 2003 he led 334 of these 400 laps in winning, during a stretch where Johnson won five of the six Cup events and finished third in the other.
   But until last fall's win here, he'd gone four years without a Charlotte victory.
   So is he now back in that old Charlotte form?
   Well, Johnson dominated Dover two weeks ago, leading 225 of the 400 laps, and only missed a shot at the win because of that pit road bobble. And Johnson says running well at Dover is usually indicative of how you'll run at Charlotte. Last season he swept both Dover races, won the October 500 here, and finished 13th in the rain-shortened 600.
   Any thoughts on what went wrong during that dry spell here? "I'm not really sure what happened," Johnson says. "I know in the fall race we've been competitive a bunch. But I don't really have any answers for the spring race. I'm just totally drawing a blank."
   Any thoughts on what went wrong in last weekend's All-Star race? He dominated and appeared the man to beat going into the final 10-lap sprint; but Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch beat Johnson off pit road, and then Johnson spun out off the fourth turn in the closing miles.
    "We just didn't anticipate the track changing that much for the final segment of the race," Johnson says. "On top of that, we were third off pit road -- and you can't take for granted how much better the car drives in clean air, and being able to control the start of the race. And I didn't have that luxury.
   "I was pinned down on the inside in the third starting position, and we never really ran long enough to get going...and finally turned around off four, just from being trapped down there and Denny had taken the air off the side of the car.
    "But we learned a lot last weekend. I wish we could have those final 10 laps back again. I think we'd be in good shape."
    He'll get another 10 laps here Sunday evening, and another 390 too, and maybe a couple GWC – green-white-checkered overtime laps to boot.

   Game face: Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
However, the way they've been tearing up the stock car circuit the past two months, the two favorites in the Coke 600 (6 p.m. ET, on Fox) have to be Kyle Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin, who have won five of the last seven Sprint Cup tour races for team owner Joe Gibbs.
   Of course Busch and Hamlin have been sniping at each other after giving away the All-Star Million to Kurt Busch with their late race run-in. But that could only serve to fire them up even more for this four-hour marathon that starts in sunlight and ends under the lights.

   And how has Casey Mears been faring in his role as sub for Brian Vickers at Jay Frye's team?
   This is the track where Mears won his only Cup feature, in the spring of 2007, while driving for Rick Hendrick.
   Mears didn't have much time to prep for his run at Dover two weeks ago, and it was a ragged afternoon. He finished 22nd, three laps down. But here, with more time, things look to be picking up; Mears qualified 13th for Sunday's 600 and says "we're making a lot of progress. 
    "A big bomb dropped on this company the last couple weeks, and everybody has been trying to navigate that in their heads, and figure out what's the best way to wrap our arms around this thing here.
    "After last week, when it was kind of a mess, to put it lightly, we all sat down and said 'There's been a lot that has gone on...I'm new, and we are going to try to have a more methodical approach.'
   "We did that.
   "Did we sit on the pole? No; but we made a lot of progress, and I'm happy with it."
    One problem Mears indicated is that Vickers has been using setups different from he is accustomed to. So 'we've gone down a different path, a little, to accommodate what I like out of the car. 
    "It is difficult," Mears concedes. "I don't know if it's the (new) spoiler...the tire may be a little different...and then you have me in the picture, different as well. 
    "We're trying to combine all that and make something happen. 
     "It might be the longest way around, but the quickest way to get where we need to go is to incorporate some of the things I need too. 
    "I'm listening to everyone: Brian, Ryan (Pemberton, his crew chief), Jimmy Elledge (crew chief for teammate Scott Speed), Jay Frye (the team manager)....everyone I need to, to get as much information as I possibly can in a short amount of time."

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  Jimmie Johnson: Mr. Charlotte? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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