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Ford rally continues: Carl Edwards and teammate AJ Allmendinger take the front row at Phoenix

  Carl Edwards: A record-setting run. Now, victory? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern



   Carl Edwards hasn't done many backflips lately, his signature victory celebration.
   But he'll be on the pole here for Sunday's Phoenix 500-K, and that is a good indication that he has something good here.
   In fact all the Jack Roush guys are looking good again. Edwards needed a track record to edge teammate AJ Allmendinger, and Greg Biffle, who dominated Texas last weekend (falling prey to a bum transmission late), will be on the second row for the 1 p.m. MT (3 p.m. ET) start.

   While Edwards is still looking for his first Cup win of the season, he's keeping an eye on the three championship contenders, Denny Hamlin, Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick.
   And Edwards says he's still banking on Johnson to rally to win a fifth straight title. "Those guys don't make mistakes, and they're able to perform and make clutch performances when it counts," Edwards says of Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.
    "I still feel Jimmie is the guy to beat.  I know it doesn't look that way right now, but I still feel Jimmie and those guys are still the guys to beat."


    Another win, another backflip by Carl Edwards, after Saturday's Nationwide race. Can he keep it up Sunday? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


     However beware the mind games. Hamlin is atop the standings, but not by much, and his crew chief Mike Ford says Knaus' pit crew swap could be the crucial blow to Johnson's title hopes.
    Edwards:  "Mike Ford is a smart guy, and he's just saying whatever he can to get things stirred up so maybe he has an advantage," Edwards says.
   "I don't personally know Chad and the guys on that team well enough to know if that will work or not. But that's just part of the game. 
    "Guys are trying to gain an advantage wherever they can.
    "The thing about Bob Osborne (Edwards' own crew chief) is that he is one of the most mentally tough people I've ever come across in my life. So whatever he says or does, that's fine.  I don't think you could get in his head.
    "But everybody is different.  I don't know the relationship Mike Ford and Chad have, but whatever they've got to do, they've got to do. 
    "I guess that makes it more interesting for all of us. 

    Denny Hamlin: No sweat, no worries? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     "I think Jimmie is still the guy to beat, just based on how they've performed in really high-pressure situations over the last half decade," Edwards went on. "They just have an ability and Jimmie has an ability....
     "I'm not saying Denny doesn't have that ability, but Jimmie has proven he can do that. 
     "And, I'm not certain of statistics, but it just seems like Jimmie and his guys have less trouble mechanically. It could really come down to something as simple as that.
    "But when I say Jimmie is still the guy to beat, it's 'barely.' I'm not cheering for one or the other at all."


      Jimmie Johnson watched crew chief Chad Knaus pondering. Did Knaus blow the championship with his pit crew shakeup? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

     It's been an odd year for the Jack Roush operation. Things finally began picking up big-time in July. David Ragan, one of the Roush men, says the operation is just so huge and requires just so much sheer production of parts and pieces for all the teams that turning things around sometimes feels like trying to turn the Queen Mary. And Edwards agrees.
    Part of the battle in the Roush part of the sport is the Richard Petty Motorsports group, which is struggling to regain its financial footing, with the enormous economic issues team owner George Gillett is facing. But RPM's Allmendinger, in the famed 43, is on the front row here, and RPM's Elliott Sadler was on the pole last week at Texas. And Allmendinger points out it's a lot easier to 'sell' a product when it's producing results.
    Still Allmendinger concedes the entire financial struggle is wearing mightily on the four Petty teams.
   "No matter what happens, I'm just proud of everybody at Richard Petty Motorsports," Allmendinger says.
   "There's no secret what we're going through right now...and it's a tough time.
    "All the crew guys here, and all the guys at the shop listening and watching, they're amazing people. Because it could easily tear this team apart. 
    "But everybody is sticking together and fighting hard to go out there and perform. 
     "We've shown that – no matter what – it's not going to get us off our game.
    "It's such a cut-throat sport...This is a tough sport, and in tough times, and we could easily give up or start fighting each other.
    "But these guys are stepping their game up, and I'm proud of them. I'm proud to be here.
     "We know the King (Petty) and (general manager) Robbie Loomis are doing what they can to resolve these problems. And we're just going to put our heads down and do our jobs."


   Team owner Jack Roush: Finally turning things around, and in a big way (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The RPM saga is just part of the drama here in the final weeks of the 10-month season.
   Can Denny Hamlin hold on to the Sprint Cup points lead? Or will Jimmie Johnson rally again, as he has so many times in his career? Or will Kevin Harvick, something of an underdog though only 59 points down, make something big happen.
   Johnson, based on his record here, should be the favorite. So Hamlin and Harvick both realize they've got to make something big happen Sunday.

   Last time here Hamlin was just recovering from knee surgery, and in a lot of pain, and anguish, and he didn't have a very good Sunday.
   This time, however, Hamlin is fresh off victory in Texas and atop the NASCAR standings.
   With two races to go, and Johnson and Harvick hot on his tail, Hamlin comes in here under more than a little pressure. But he continues to insist he's keeping cool about it all.
     Nervous? After all, Hamlin has never won a championship.
    "I only get nervous at times...only certain moments in which I think about it too much... when I get to thinking about everything that could possibly happen," Hamlin insists.
    "I'm more excited for the possibilities than I am nervous that we'll end up faltering and not winning it, to be honest with you. 
    "We have a great opportunity here to do some great things. We just hope the things we can't control go well for us, and that's all we can really hope for."
    Nevertheless Hamlin realizes this is "a real important weekend for us," more important perhaps even than next weekend's finale at Homestead, Fla., which is typically a 'defensive' race for whoever the tour leader is.
   "This one is probably more critical for us," Hamlin said.  "And double-file restarts at this track, with only one to 1-1/2 lanes, do get crazy. The restarts here coming off turn four we see a lot of chain-reaction wrecks, just from taking off, because the track is so flat you can't see through the car in front of you. 
    "That could be one of the things you have to avoid if you're somewhere in mid-pack.
    "So this is probably the more critical of the last two, as far as deciding a champion.
    "I feel like next week, based on our performance, we can hold our own.  So this week it's very important to make sure we leave here with a lead."


Looking for an unexpected winner here Sunday? Consider David Ragan (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    The view from inside the Harvick camp, however, is decidedly aggressive, not quite a mad-dog offense but an almost chillingly coldly-efficient game plan of some sort in the works.
   Remember, team owner Richard Childress was once one of the most feared team owners in late-season championship chase. And there is that sense that, after a few years off the radar, Childress and his men are again a menacing force here.
     When it comes to comparing driving styles and aggressiveness, Hamlin considers Johnson and Harvick and says "we all have very, very different driving styles." And he says Harvick "is the most aggressive."
    Harvick appears ready to take that to another level in these final days of the year.
   Will those three simply race each other? Nope, Harvick says. To win this championship, a man will have to win one of these final two races, he says.
   But.....things have gotten a little crazy lately on the NASCAR tour. Even Edwards says he wouldn't be surprised to see a surprise winner in victory lane Sunday evening.
   Consider just last weekend in Fort Worth. Ryan Newman, laughing, says last Sunday's run-in between Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton was "like bad soap opera and reality TV.
   "The craziest part was when Jeff and Jeff got together was under caution. For them to crash as hard as they did under caution was wild.
   "I was curious why they were allowed to walk toward each other. Were they going to shake hands or bow?
    "They are allowed to walk toward each other like they are going to pat each other on the back and say 'Hey, hope your kid does good next week on his report card.'
    "Next thing you know they are fighting and pushing each other. One of them accepts the fault that caused the whole deal. Then they both get in the ambulance together and ride off.
    "It was like: how did that happen? Did I just see that?"
    And if Newman were involved in a situation like that and saw Gordon coming at him?
   "I'm pretty sure Jeff wouldn't walk at me," Newman said with another laugh. "I don't think we would go down that path, no matter what happened.
    "If he did, it probably wouldn't be his best choice of the day."
   Newman, whose wife is expecting their first child, has Ron Hornaday standing by for possible relief driving.

 Ryan Newman: Expectant father (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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