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Denny Hamlin edges Ryan Newman for the Atlanta 500 pole....but worries abound, with the playoffs looming

  Denny Hamlin: Fast, and faster....but he worries about reliability (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   Has Jimmie Johnson simply been sandbagging the past few months....or testing some of crew chief Chad Knaus' secret tricks....or is Johnson really in trouble as he heads into the NASCAR playoffs for what would be his fifth straight Sprint Cup championship?
   Johnson insists he's not sure why he and his team have lost their mojo.
   But rivals point out that Johnson typically doesn't play that well in August and typically doesn't carry much momentum into the chase.
   And then when the chase starts, he's like gangbusters.
   So his rivals aren't quite sure what to think.
   Denny Hamlin, one of regular season's top winners, won the pole Saturday for Sunday's Atlanta 500, the sport's new Labor Day weekend feature, and Ryan Newman will be on the outside of the front row for the 7:30 p.m. ET start. Kyle Busch will start third. And Hamlin says the car he has here "is the best car in race trim I've ever had." Hamlin, who won five tour events in the spring but then went dry over the summer with a series of problems, has challenged his team to get back in the game, with the championship playoffs looming in two weeks: "For us the chase starts this weekend," Hamlin vowed. "Our chase starts now."
   Kevin Harvick, who has led the tour virtually the entire season, in a remarkably consistent performance with Gil Martin's team, points out that Tony Stewart last season was just as strong through the regular season only to fade in the chase: "Stewart was in this position last year, and we are in it this year....and it is hard to explain to the fans that you have 26 weeks and you get nothing for it (in the chase, because the points are essentially re-zeroed among the top-12 for the final 10 races.
    "I don't know what's right and what's wrong.....We all know the rules when we come in, so you just race by that system and see what happens," Harvick says.  
   Harvick has reliability on his side. But Denny Hamlin, with five wins already, though in a slump, frets that reliability could be his Achilles Heel:
    "Reliability is the only thing we really need to work on.  Our speed could be better, and we took a right step this weekend. I feel we gained some of that back. 
   "But reliability....it's taken us out of the last three chases -- not being reliable.  You have to have it to be the champion.
   "It all goes back to what happens inside that shop, and making sure the parts and pieces are right on the car before it comes to the track."

  Denny Hamlin has had a ragged summer, after a five-win sping. Crashing at Watkins Glen and Daytona, breaking at Bristol. Now he's challenged his team to get back up on top of its game....and after Saturday's runs, Hamlin says he's got 'a brand new team' here this weekend (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Kurt Busch, the 2004 tour champ, says he's going to wait and see just what Johnson has going in those first few weeks of the playoffs. And it's not clear if that blown engine at Michigan three weeks ago has made Busch gun-shy about the playoffs.
    "It's just a matter of seeing what the pace-setter will set...and omit some of the troublesome tracks," Busch says, sizing up the chase. 
   "We have our good tracks, our mediocre tracks, and a track or two that we're going to struggle on.
   "The way that I won in 2004 was that the tracks I knew I was going to struggle on, we tested as many laps as we could and really tried to dial our car in and go above and beyond and take away weaknesses. 
    "We just can't test -- with the testing policies the way they are now -- on the tracks we're going to struggle at. So we'll just try and do the best job we can -- to not take ourselves out of contention. 
    "You can't be out of contention halfway through the chase.  You still have to be within 80 to 100 points around halfway."
   Ever since Tony Stewart fell out of the chase in the opening laps of the first chase race in 2004, and Kyle Busch broke early in the first chase race in 2008, the Loudon, N.H., opener has been played generally conservatively.
    Hamlin says "I don't think anyone knows who a favorite is until four races into the chase."
   That would be after Loudon, Dover, Del., Kansas City and California.
   "That's when you'll really see," Hamlin says. "You've got several different types of tracks, and you're going to see who's showing their cards.
   Among the late summer surprises are Jack Roush men Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle.
    Biffle won Pocono, and he says the Roush men can win now at just about any track on the tour.
   "We've struggled as an organization, in getting Ford its share of wins, but certainly as of late we've run much, much better," Biffle says.
   "The turning point is really was Chicago (early July), where Carl finished second and we were running very well and had an engine problem.
    "At Indy, Pocono and Michigan we were really fast, as an organization. 
    "Now it's just 'opportunity.'
     "Before, we were trying to get to the top-five. 
      "Now it's simply the 'opportunity' – when you get the right pit call, or you get track position, or get out front at the end. 
    "We're going to win our share of races now.  We're running competitive enough to do that.
    "We're good enough to win as an organization at pretty much every track."
    That's been a long time coming, though. And Biffle concedes the season has been a rough one mentally on the teams.
    "But everybody feels a little calmer (now) because we have 235 points (over the 13th in the cutoff), and we know that a couple of top-20s will lock us
in....and we know we're capable of better than that," Biffle says.

                         The lineup for Sunday's Atlanta 500, presented by Emory Healthcare


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   J. D. Gibbs (L), who runs Joe Gibbs Racing, and Denny Hamlin (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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