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The championship? Let's consider:

   Jimmie Johnson: vulnerable again? Or as dangerous as a wounded bear? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   So, with 18 races down and 18 races yet to go, who will win this season's NASCAR championship?
   As the sport heads into a rare week off, the last break for the stock car tour between now and the Homestead finale in late November, it's a good point to consider things.
   And let's get real about this thing.

   The playoffs -- the chase -- are still eight weeks off, and the battle is furious to make the cut. For many, the goal is not to win the Sprint Cup title but just to make the chase.
   And this new point system is still not that easy to figure out.
   However in considering who really has a good shot at winning the title, consider how the first half of the season has gone and judge from there.
   Forget the hype, the wild cards, the dark horses, and all that.
    Stick to the basics:
   -- If you're running well now, and you've been running well, you should have a decent shot at it.
   -- And if you're not running well by now, it's time to throw up a few Hail Marys and start looking ahead to 2012.
   You can pin hopes on a long-shot champion, a bolt out-of-the-blue. But odds are the man hoisting this season's trophy at Homestead will be one of the six men currently on top of the standings:
   Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, or Matt Kenseth.
   Those six have been head-and-shoulders above the rest.

  Denny Hamlin: Too late to mount a charge? Or will he be the Comeback Kid? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   For the rest, sorry, guys: if you haven't shown championship consistency by now, after some six months of racing, you're probably not going to mount a great charge to the title. One or two or even three of these six might falter down the stretch, but the odds of all six fading in the clutch and opening the door, well, like Bruton Smith likes to say "Vegas, baby."
   A stock car team is like a big ship – hard to turn around.
   Consider, this is the point of the season where last year Jack Roush men finally caught fire…though too late to make a run at the championship (though they did finish year 4th, 5th and 6th.)
   After this race weekend, a year ago, the top-12 looked like this: Harvick, Jeff Gordon, Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Jeff Burton, Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Edwards, Greg Biffle and Clint Bowyer. At the end of the season, the three battling for the title: Johnson, Harvick and Hamlin.

   For the men who have been having success so far this season, the rule now typically is stick with the basics and not get too far off base. No one team has shown great dominance.
   As tight and relatively uncertain as things are these days, it's probably not going to be a summer of experimentation for the sport's front-runners…not like Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus used to do.
   And that does open the door to some gamblers.


  Kevin Harvick: Solid enough, but focused enough? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   First, who are the men who have actually won a 10-race sprint-chase title?
   Pretty short list: Kurt Busch in 2004, Stewart in 2005, and Johnson, all five since.
   Maybe a better question is who are the men who have lost the chase?
   The most recent was Hamlin, who seemingly had things all but locked up…until he ran short of gas at Phoenix last fall, in the tour's next-to-last event.
   Others: Kyle Busch, who dominated the 2008 regular season and then had three straight problem-plagued races to open the chase and thus fell out.
   "The biggest thing," Busch says he learned from that 2008 collapse, "is that you have to be prepared. 
   "That fall, when we came here to Loudon, I probably didn't do the best job in practice getting the car set up like I needed it….and then Sunday we didn't quite get the sway bar bolt tightened up all the way, or something happened there and something broke. 
    "Went the following week to Dover and blew an engine. 
    "Then we went the following week to Kansas and felt like we had water in the fuel system."
    With that, Busch's title hopes vanished.
    Johnson wins titles not because he's the best driver on the tour with the best equipment and the best crew (though he might well). Johnson wins titles the old fashioned way – by not losing them.
    In this sport too many drivers and teams simply beat themselves.
    Johnson doesn't beat himself.
    Last season Johnson and Knaus were clearly vulnerable, for the first time in years. They could have easily been beaten by either Hamlin or Harvick. Even right down to the final race.
   But Johnson prevailed, in what might have been his best championship run yet, a remarkable come-from-behind charge.
   It is that potential lightning strike that has to keep his rivals on guard.

  Kurt Busch: turned his season around early, and now he's hot. And he knows how to win chase championships (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Johnson and Knaus look vulnerable again this season, especially with whatever they're doing on pit road.
   Still, like Harvick says 'Until someone beats Jimmie Johnson, he is the man to beat for the championship.'

   Harvick himself should have a very good chance at the title again. He's got solid equipment, crew chief Gil Martin is savvy and wily and tough, and Harvick, who has already won three events, is a great race-closer. But Harvick sometimes seems to get sidetracked by dubious issues. Can he stay focused?
    Avoiding controversy, avoiding mistakes, that could be key to this year's title.

   Currently one of the hottest men on the tour is Kurt Busch, whose Richmond-May blowup led to dramatic changes in the Roger Penske operation that have put Busch and teammate Brad Keselowski in tiptop form the six or seven weeks. Busch and crew chief Steve Addington may have been rather erratic the first few months of the season, but Busch has been doing some of the best driving of his career lately, and if he and Addington can keep things running smoothly, they could definitely make a play for the title.
   Edwards closed out 2010 on a hot streak and opened 2011 hot too. He and crew chief Bob Osborne really haven't cooled off, but Gordon notes that Edwards' rivals seem to have caught up.
    Edwards came within a hair of winning the 2005 title – and doesn't that seem like ages ago. And he's a clear homerun hitter this season. Plus – maybe that early-season run-in with Busch shook things up, when Edwards got knocked out of Phoenix – Edwards seems much more on his mental game this season. Still, that wild end-game at Kentucky is a bit nagging…

    Teammate Kenseth, the stealth bomber, always lurking, always dangerous, never gets the headlines he deserves. But he has been quietly making his own case for this year's championship. And Kenseth, like Johnson, doesn't beat himself. The sponsorship issues at the moment, though, could be a worrisome distraction.
    However Kenseth and Johnson may be the two best big-picture guys among this six.

  Matt Kenseth: low-keyed, likes to fly under the radar. And particularly dangerous in the clutch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Which brings us to Kyle Busch.
   He is the real wild card in this championship picture.
   Yes, he's atop the standings.  But he looked good in 2008 too…..
   Kyle Busch may be the best driver on the track today – but the line here is that he can too often beat himself.
   It's not the mechanical issues alone that have plagued Busch in the playoffs, but a volatile temper…which this season he finally seems to have under control.
   And if rivals plan to rattle his cage, to try to get him off his game, Busch now appears to have that part of his game straight. Indeed he came through the Darlington-Harvick deal pretty darned well, for as wild as things were for a while.
   "I'm not worried about that," Busch says. "I'm worried about the future and what we can do to win a championship.
    "Whatever it was that did or didn't initiate it doesn't matter to me; it's not the point.
   "The point is to move on and get over things in your life…do the best you can, and let the rest take care of itself."

    Busch, going for his 100th NASCAR national touring win in Sunday's 300 here, is one of the best drivers on the tour. But can Busch win a Sprint Cup championship?
   Last season Johnson appeared on the ropes, off his game, and Hamlin, Busch's teammate, appeared on the verge of Joe Gibbs' first title since Stewart in '05.
  But Hamlin left a little opening, and Johnson blew through it to his fifth straight title.
  Certainly the Gibbs guys have championship stuff. But….
   "I've won a Nationwide championship, though that's way different than a Cup championship," Busch says. 
   "That's the next challenge.  We're up for it; we're looking forward to it. I feel this is the best opportunity we've had in the past few years."

   Kyle Busch: Great driver, big winner...but can he win the championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    If Busch does get this title, it will also be a first for Dave Rogers, his crew chief.
    Rogers, Busch says, "has done a really nice job building the team. And the team has been right there following him every step of the way. 
    "It takes leadership, it takes guys believing in the program.
    "I'd certainly like to think we're championship caliber."
   When the playoffs open, the tour will be in Chicago, not here. This track has kicked off the chase for several years, but now it's the second of the 10.
   Busch and Rogers are on their game at the sport's mid-size tracks, as they showed last weekend at Kentucky. So they should open well at Chicagoland Sept. 18th.
   But here, at this flat track, with its tight corners?
   "It's one of those places where sometimes I'm good and sometimes I'm not," Busch says.
   So here and these next few weeks Busch says the game plan is to stick with the basics: "Just concentrating on hitting everything the right way, and making sure you don't try to do anything too far out of the box."

    And what will likely happen in the next eight weeks till the chase?
    Well, the Brickyard 400, the next event, is its own creature. An odd track layout, with square corners….and the decided lack of downforce with these NASCAR stockers makes it virtually impossible to complete a pass. The tight, narrow pit road makes for trouble too. (Pick Edwards to beat Kurt Busch.)
    From that point the tour hits a routine – wide Pocono, the high-speed Watkins Glen course, broad Michigan, too smooth Bristol, always fun Atlanta, and typically rough-and-tumble Richmond. (Pick, in order, Hamlin, Stewart, Kenseth, Kyle Busch, Edwards, and Hamlin-vs-Kyle Busch.)
     Then in the playoffs?
     Johnson and Knaus may again be vulnerable….but someone still has to beat them over the year's final 10 events: Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover, Kansas, Charlotte, Talladega, Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix and Homestead.
    "The thing they do well," Kyle Busch says of Johnson and Knaus, "is just, man, they are able to execute. 
    "They know what they need to do. They concentrate on hitting all their marks. They cross their t's, they dot their i's, and they dot their lower case j's.
    "It's a sport of attention to detail.  Those guys seem to be really good at that. 
     "Chad will keep making changes to the car, and they tend to keep getting better. 
     "They've just got a good way of going about it. 
     "They only have one win (Talladega) this year. But those guys you don't ever count them out.
      "Not in any race do you count them out.  Even last week – I'm leading, and Jimmie's running second or third, and I was like 'They might just all of a sudden come up with something here and win the race.'
    "They're always in the back of your mind."
    But then Kyle Busch typically seems to be right up front….
    "We'd like to think we've been successful at doing all that this year….and that's what the first 26 races are about," Kyle Busch says.
    So far Kyle Busch and Dave Rogers are right on target.


 Dave Rogers: Is Kyle Busch's crew chief the next Chad Knaus? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Pit road will be the key to

Pit road will be the key to Jimmie winning his 6th consecutive championship, both Johnson and Knaus want it, they are hungry, it's as though this was their first championship. Each year the obstacles are greater, more complex and difficult. The ever revolving changes to the race cars, new points system, in addition to factoring in all the races thus far have provided a different winner. I'll bet my new diet (whenever I decide to start one) on Johnson and Knaus to pull that "rabbit-out-of-the-hat when it comes time. I'll bet every dollar in my bank account (too bad the zeros are forming to the right) it's going to be a tight race right up until the last lap at Homestead. I'll bet that "golden horseshoe" that Harvick had surgically removed from Johnson and implanted himself this year. I'll bet "Golden Tate" has a touchdown when the NFL season begins or before he can say the word "@#vanillamyass is not an athlete!" I have faith in Jimmie, Chad and Team 48, but their needs to be cohesiveness on pit road. I have faith, don't have patience, but I do have faith in my Jimmie, but then again Dr. Drew might say otherwise.

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