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Keeping championship focus...and ignoring the distractions

 Carl Edwards, here at Aflac's Cancer Center, realizes there's more to life than just the next NASCAR race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Ignore the hype and hoopla over the 'race to the chase,' and the playoff cut just eight days hence.
   Focus instead on the four men who will almost certainly be battling it out for the NASCAR championship this fall:
   Kyle Busch.
   Jimmie Johnson.
   Matt Kenseth.
   And Carl Edwards.

   Anyone else hoping to make a run at the Sprint Cup title will have to step up his game. And none of those challengers really seems to have that much going right now.
   Now these next few days will be filled with distractions – like who's going to the White House and who's not, and do any of those no-shows really understand the implications for the sport itself….
   And there will likely be some smoke-and-mirrors here too. Maybe even from ol' Smoke himself, who's on the hot seat and facing a long To-do list, in a season that has gone winless far too long for him.
   But just focus on the key four:
   Jimmie Johnson already has his game face on. And over the past few weeks he's shown so much 'class' in so many areas that it's downright amazing to watch. Nobody's going to rattle his cage.
   Kyle Busch is loose and confident, and doing a great job of letting aggravations (like Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski) just roll off his shoulders. Mark him A-plus for maturity.
   Matt Kenseth. Well, they don't call him the Stealth Bomber for nothing. He simply doesn't make mistakes; he won't beat himself. And over the year's first 24 races, Kenseth has given up barely 30 finishing positions to high-flying Busch and Johnson.
   And Carl Edwards……
   Edwards – whose 800-foot leap of faith off the Las Vegas Stratosphere back in the spring has been one of this sport's most dramatic marketing moves this season -- certainly doesn't need any distractions in his bid to beat Johnson and the rest of the title challengers in this fall's looming NASCAR playoffs.
   And this White House invitation flap over next Wednesday's meet-and-greet with the President doesn't help with the focus.


    NASCAR stars are no strangers at the White House. Tony Stewart here celebrating one of his own Cup championships with President Bush (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


  Edwards is one of four stock car racers who has said he's just too busy to accept the offer. But Saturday here he said he might be able to make it after all.
   Edwards calls the flap "blown a little bit out of proportion."
   That 'flap' began Thursday afternoon when NASCAR issued a press release about the White House invite, and pointed out that five of the 12 invited Sprint Cup drivers had said they were simply too busy to make the trip.
   One, maybe.
   Two, hmmmm.
   Three, what's up here? 
   But five?
   To say there's been a firestorm of reaction from some fans might be understatement. Some fans have applauded the no-shows, for making a 'statement' of some sort. Other fans have said that skipping a White House invite like this not only shows lack of respect for the Presidency but also reflects poorly on this sport in a larger sense.
   That this 'flap' comes on the eve of NASCAR's championship playoffs seems curious.
   And just how the 'flap' might be viewed in corporate boardrooms among men considering writing huge sponsorship checks to back this sport, well, that could be an issue too.
   To try to defuse the issue, Johnson says simply: "IMO... regardless of political views, when POTUS sends an invite and wants to honor you at the White House, you accept. #respect"
   The guy, with a genuine blue-collar background, has been taught well, and learned his lessons.


    Jimmie Johnson: NASCAR's classiest driver? He's certainly setting the pace. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


 Edwards this season has become one of the sport's best at defusing difficult situations.
   Edwards points out he's on the President's Council for Fitness Sports and Nutrition: "I spend a lot of time with Secretary (Kathleen) Sebelius (Health and Human Services) and Shellie Pfohl (the council's director) and all the folks up there at the White House."
   But Edwards also pointed out "This is not only the busiest time of the year, this is about the busiest time of my life…and the folks at the White House -- I spoke with them, they understand, and the NASCAR folks understand. 
    "If something changes, then I'll be there. But right now, I'm just not able to go."

    Edwards at least is locked into the 10-race playoffs, and one of the four men with the best odds of winning the Sprint Championship.


     If one of these four -- L-R Kyle Busch, Paul Menard, Brad Keselowski and Marcos Ambrose -- wins Sunday's Atlanta 500, it's a $1 million bonus, part of Sprint's $3 million promotion (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


 Not everyone here is so lucky.
    Like Tony Stewart. He will likely make the playoffs, but he hasn't been a contender to win many races this season. In fact Stewart hasn't won on the tour since last October at California. His only noticeable runs this season came at Las Vegas in March and at Loudon, N.H., in July. Otherwise this season has been quite forgettable. And the lost of competition director Bobby Hutchens, released in June, probably hasn't helped (and really hasn't been fully explained either).
   Last weekend at Bristol, there was stark contrast between Stewart's team and teammate Ryan Newman's team. Newman won the pole; Stewart qualified dead last. The two crew chiefs clearly aren't seeing eye to eye.
   And Stewart points out that Newman's operation has been much more consistent than his own.
   On top of all that, there are the usual sponsorship issues to deal with. And the cost of racing isn't getting any cheaper.
   Add in the Danica Patrick distraction – she's to drive 10 to 12 Cup races in Stewart-Hendrick cars next season (along with a full Nationwide schedule, in Earnhardt-Hendrick cars) – and Stewart's hopes of finding enough sponsorship dollars to have the Patrick Cup team hire another part-time driver in order to be able to run all 36 tour events.
   Mark Martin, Stewart says, is the man he's got his eye on. But the money still isn't there.
   "I would love to have him," Stewart says of Martin. "The biggest thing is getting the financial backing to run the remainder of those races.
    "I would love nothing more than Mark in all the races that Danica doesn't run next year.
    "I've been a Mark Martin fan for a long time, and I would love nothing more than to have Mark in one of our cars."
    Martin still has no firm plans for 2012. Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers are also men trying to put together deals for 2012. And David Ragan's situation at Jack Roush's could be tenuous too, now that UPS has decided to put most of its NASCAR money into college football next season instead.


     Matt Kenseth (R) and crew chief Jimmy Fennig: old-school. And they don't beat themselves (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


 Will Stewart make the playoffs? Looks like it's down to him and Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bowyer for the final two spots….though any driver who could win Sunday night's Atlanta 500 and next Saturday night's Richmond 400 could take a spot away.
    "We're still 21 points to the good of where we need to be….so we just need to maintain it," Stewart says.
    However Stewart has averaged only a very weak 16th place finish the last five weeks….
     Of course Stewart won this race a year ago, and the tires are the same, and the track is the same. So he insists he's comfortable.
   In fact Stewart was in a remarkably good mood the other day, a rare good mood this season, despite the pressure of dealing with that White House flap. He too is skipping the Presidential meet-and-greet, though not saying just what he has that is so pressing.
   Pressure to make the chase? Not really, because Stewart has already conceded his operation isn't running in championship form.
   Still, making the chase is a good PR/marketing shot.
   "Everybody keeps saying 'last ditch,' and 'we have to make something happen,'" Stewart considers. "We don't have to make anything happen; we just have to not have a disaster happen. We just need two solid weeks."
    Nevertheless Stewart concedes "It's stressful. We've got nine days to accomplish a goal that's a year-long goal.
    "So the next nine days will be stressful and tense. But the good thing is I think of Darian (Grubb, his crew chief) as a brother…"


     Clint Bowyer: a lot on his plate these next two races. And what can he line up for 2012? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Bowyer too is feeling the heat of the playoff cut. He doesn't have a ride lined up for next year, and he's working the market place. Making the chase would make him more attractive to a sponsor.
    However Bowyer and his teammates at Richard Childress' are in a slump. Teammate Kevin Harvick fumes he hasn't run well in four months. And Bowyer's last tour win was at Talladega last fall.
    Childress hasn't been happy with his four teams, except for Brickyard winners Paul Menard and Slugger Labbe. And Bowyer says the boss had a heavy-handed meeting with the troops Sunday after Bristol: "If I was a fly on the wall, it probably wasn't the most fun meetings you would want to be in."
    On the plus side of things for the Childress guys, the engine department 'won' the NASCAR engine dyno tests in that eight-team 'shootout' after the Michigan 400 two weeks ago.
   So Childress' engines would not appear to be part of the problem.
   For Bowyer and crew chief Shane Wilson the game plan for these final two regular season races is clear: "Hail, Mary!" Bowyer says.
   "You drop back, you go for it."
   But Bowyer and Wilson, over the past two months, just haven't even been in the game. They're averaging only 20th place finishes. 
   "We're going to have to get things turned around," Bowyer says.

     Tony Stewart: happy this weekend....and what's up with that? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


 Perhaps handicapping all team here this weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway is one of the most bizarre track schedules, in what has been a season filled with bizarre track schedules.
   Matt Kenseth: "I don't know who in the world came up with these track schedules this year, but they are just the goofiest I've ever seen."
   On top of that, this track now has only one tour event each season (since owner Bruton Smith made the controversial decision to move one of these Cup dates to Kentucky Speedway), so teams are pretty much flying blind. "It's a track we haven't been to in a year, or tested at, so it's really unique," Kenseth complains.
    "It's a four-hour race (starting near 8 p.m ET Sunday night)….and the track is real wide, a lot of passing grooves. Hitting that race setup that feels good is going to be difficult…. but really important."

    Kyle Busch, the tour points leader and wins leader, with only one really bad finish all summer (at Loudon in July), says the game plan Sunday is pretty simple:  "Take four tires each pit stop, no matter what.
    "Now if it's a fuel run to the end of the race, and you're eight laps short, or something like that, you might take just two tires in order to get the jump on everyone else.  But it would certainly have to be special circumstances for that to happen."
   Brother Kurt Busch, who has had a bad run of finishes lately, and has been outplayed by his younger teammate Brad Keselowski, should be one of the favorites, considering he's won two of the last four 500s here.
    However Kurt Busch doesn't seem to be coming into this race on any high. Still, he's worked his butt off for everything he's gotten this season, in an impressive performance.
    Could Sunday's 500 be the trigger for a Kurt Busch turnaround?
   "This is one of the fun tracks that all the drivers look forward coming to," Busch says. "As much as you slide around on the track, and as much as pit strategy is always an interesting call, this race really keeps you on your toes."


  Crew chief Chad Knaus: does he have Jimmie Johnson on target for a record-breaking sixth straight NASCAR championship? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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