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Carl Edwards and Juan Pablo Montoya 1-2 for Saturday's Richmond 400...but what about Jimmie Johnson?

  Jimmie Johnson: Slumping? Or just biding his time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   The hottest driver in NASCAR, Carl Edwards, continues his charmed summer, Friday evening winning the pole for Saturday night's Richmond 400.
   But the hottest question of the summer remains Jimmie Johnson.
   Is Johnson, who last Sunday finally logged his first top-five finish since June, really on the ropes, as the playoffs approach?
   That's the question hanging over everyone, here this weekend, and for the next several weeks of NASCAR's championship chase, opening next weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
   Mr. Four-time appears in something of a slump, as the chase looms.
   But Johnson hasn't won four straight Sprint Cup titles on sheer luck. And unless Denny Hamlin wins this 400, Johnson will be atop the Sprint Cup standings next Sunday at Loudon, N.H.
   Still, Johnson is a question mark at the moment.
   Will this 400 tell the tale? He's won three times at this very fast three-quarter-mile track.
   "But the last three times we have been here it's been quite a bit of a struggle," Johnson says. "This track has always been that way for us -- on or off."
   A Johnson slump?
   Rivals figure they won't know for sure, or be able to breath easier until the tour hits Kansas in three weeks.  
   Johnson himself?
   "I still think all the way back to 2006 -- we were crashed at Loudon, right out of the gate, and then again in Talladega. And we thought we were out.
   "But we just focused on our team and things came back to us.
    "We were pretty much down and out after the first race. We felt like, the way the season had gone up to that point, that a top-10 average was going to win the championship.
    "Actually a top-five finish has been needed to win. 
     "We could have easily given up, or taken a negative approach...But we didn't; we stayed in our world, kept it simple, and tried to collect points.
     "We kept fighting.
      "And then, just when we had some good things going for us, Talladega happened and knocked us back down.
    "So momentum was really against us in 2006...and it took other teams making mistakes to let us back in."
     But Johnson can do it the other way too, like in that 2008 epic battle with teammate Jeff Gordon....
    "Yeah, we were rolling in '08," Johnson said with a smile. "With Jeff and Carl (Edwards).....
    "We had momentum working for us.
     "I giggle about it now --- and I still can't believe our team, in those clutch moments, delivered time and time again. We had to, because we were under such pressure from both Jeff and Carl."
     Johnson, when it comes chase time, has always been a threat.
    In fact, he could very easily have won every single championship since he first joined the Cup tour full-time.
    Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have become, well, dynastic.
    "Dynastic -- now that is a word," Johnson says with a laugh.
    But they have appeared vulnerable too, at times.....deceptively. 
    "We have been slow through the summer months going into the chase before," Johnson says.
    "Last year I remember being completely embarrassed, and disgusted, with how we ran in this particular race (he finished 11th), and formed some negative thoughts going into Loudon, and thought 'Well, the shot at the fourth won't be there.'
    "And we got into the chase and we had a good run at Loudon and went to Dover and won, and things started really clicking for us.
    "These last 10 races are different than the rest of the year.
     "Those 10 races put stress and pressure on teams they aren't used to experiencing.
    "Certain teams handle it better than others.
    "We have done a good job with that over the years, and I hope that we can do it again this year."
    Well, yes....but then there's the Kurt Busch factor, and all these 'Boys, have at it' incidents to keep track of.
    Montoya and AJ Allmendinger included.
    Paybacks coming? Is time for some chase guys to expect to have to pay up?
    "I'm not in the chase, so the way I look at it, those guys have to avoid me," Allmendinger says with a laugh.
   "I'm not in the chase either, so I don't care," Montoya adds. "Those guys have a lot more to lose than us."
    Johnson would prefer to have all those tussles in the past....
    "I think the aggression is coming from the fact that it is so tough to pass in these cars," Johnson says. "After 26 races of dealing with things -- and small little riffs developing -- and unintended contact, and a variety of things, everybody is kind of at wit's end.
    "I think that will be a storyline at some point -- the aggressive driving changing the dynamic of the chase at some point."
    Johnson insists "I just can't carry any baggage over from the first 26 into the final 10."
    However he concedes rivals might not feel the same way. Kurt Busch in fact has made some pointed remarks about being tired of getting run over by Johnson....
    Johnson says this season "the racing has been more difficult...so there's been a lot more contact -- not necessarily intentional.
    "But a lot of guys have been mad at me.
    "And I think about Jeff Burton at Charlotte -- Kyle Busch didn't try to rip the valve stem out of Jeff's tire, but he did. And Burton was ticked, and told him about it.
    "That type of stuff is more prevalent now.
    "When you're really mad and somebody's wronged you, you're going to settle that score. That's not changed.
    "The thing that's tough in the chase is when two guys have their issues and it collects innocent drivers.
      "If you're one of the two guys, and you know it's coming, you know what you have to lose -- and you're very nervous if you're someone who has a lot to lose. You think 'Man, was it really worth it?'
     "And then the guy who has the score to settle will just smile and wait for his chance."

          The results of Friday qualifying runs for Saturday night's Richmond 400



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