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Jimmie Johnson edges Carl Edwards for the Bristol pole, but a lot of questions hang in the air for Saturday night's 500

   Jimmie Johnson: slumping this summer, but maybe on the rebound? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)  

     By Mike Mulhern

   BRISTOL, Tenn.
   Jimmie Johnson versus Carl Edwards, that's what the first lap Saturday night will be at least.
   Johnson, who has been less than spectacular lately on the stock car trail, with a run of very mediocre finishes, is back at the track where he won in March, in that sharp battle with Kurt Busch. And he's hoping to turn things back around in time for the playoffs.
   And the Busch Bros, Kurt and Kyle, will have to make a charge up through the pack to get to the front in this one, after poor qualifying runs Friday for Saturday's Irwin Tools 500, on a day when Goodyear's new tires seemed to baffle just about everyone.
   What to expect here?
   Well, the sense among drivers is this will be a race unlike the past few Bristol races. But they're not quite sure how it may all actually play out.
   Kurt Busch said Goodyear had to come with a new tire setup after several teams had tire problems in the spring race.
   But these new tires have quite different characteristics. Even Jeff Gordon spun out, during his qualifying run.
   Goodyear engineers says they're very happy with what they've seen with these tires so far, and in the cool of the night racing grip should improve.

  Carl Edwards and wife Kate (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   But that's just one question.
   Another: Is Johnson just starting to get warmed up for the championship chase, which opens in three weeks?
   And another: Kevin Harvick. He has dominated the tour with remarkable consistency over the summer, but he had a poor run Friday.
   The pre-game line is for an Edwards-Kyle Busch Saturday. And Edwards looks to have an edge at the moment.
   Edwards has by far the best finishing average over the past six weeks, and he'll be on the front row Saturday night with Johnson.
   "The engine is a big help," Edwards says of the summer comeback by the Jack Roush teams. "That FR9 has helped us more than I thought it was going to, honestly. 
    "Our old engine was pretty good, but this one is pretty spectacular."
    Edwards appears to be peaking at just the right point of the season, but he, like Harvick, is wary of Johnson: "It's only six races, and it's in the middle of the season....but that's a championship caliber string right there" – his 4.3 finishing average since Daytona.
   "I'm proud of my guys. You all know how much we've struggled, and to have all of our cars – Greg Biffle's car, Matt Kenseth's car, my car – to be as fast as they've been, that feels good. 
    "I hope we can keep it going."
    Surprisingly, Edwards has led only six laps all season.
    "In a way, I'm more proud of our performance these last six races than if we had a dominant car and were out winning races but not scoring as many points," Edwards said.
    "....because in 2008 we won more races than anybody else.  I know what that feels like. 
     "I know how the car has to be."
     Edwards says doing so well overall, without leading laps, "shows you're making a lot out of maybe a car or situation that isn't a race-winning one. 
    "Yes, we'd like to be faster.  But this shows that even without a dominant car, we've been able to perform very well."
    And Edwards points to an attitude change in the Roush camp too, with the new-found speed and handling.
   "A lot has changed," Edwards says. "When you're running the way we're running now, it's a lot more relaxed. 
    "If I came into this weekend 12th in the points, it would be a stressful weekend.  I get to come into this weekend a lot more relaxed. 
    "I think we're on the verge of breaking through and getting some wins."
   Edwards concedes he's  been in NASCAR's doghouse too often this season, so he's hoping to stay out of trouble for a while.
   "Having a clean race is the best thing....the stuff I've been in trouble for this year, those incidents have gone about as bad as they could have gone," Edwards says with a grimace.
    The championship?
    Edwards says he's got a shot at it now.
     "A guy like me, or Greg or even Matt -- as well as we've been running, Greg in particular --  could win the championship," Edwards says. 
    However the shadow of Jimmie Johnson is looming large.
     "Jimmie could re-emerge, like that bunch always somehow seems able to, and he could win five of the 10 races in the chase," Edwards says.
    "I just hope when the wheel stops it comes around the right way for us."
    Want to hit the hot button with Edwards?
    Okay: taking a critical line from one of his rivals, who is the real Carl Edwards: the guy in the car, or the guy outside the car?
    And then take a step back.
    "It's really simple:  I treat everyone the way they treat me," Edwards says. "I'm not going to let somebody take advantage of me. 
    "That's all there is to it.
     "I don't think I've ever gone out and been the aggressor, or a bully. But I'm not going to let somebody take advantage of me. 
     "You guys obviously have a lot of opinions about that, but the people who know me and know what I'm about it makes pretty good sense to them.
        "But for some reason some people don't like that, or don't understand it."
    And of course Atlanta is up next....and Atlanta is where the Edwards-Brad Keselowski controversy played out in March.
    Edwards is braced for another round of those spectacular TV replays: "I assume we'll see that a lot for a long time.
     "That turned into the worst-case scenario -- or the most dramatic scenario....far from what I expected. 
     "If you look at this sport objectively, if you look at what's going in different situations, it's pretty amazing how the same situation, with the same set of circumstances, can get twisted in so many ways....
     "I'm just going to race my car as hard as I can and be the best person I can be, just like I've always done.
     "And if people don't understand that, that's their problem. 
      "I did what I did, and I did it for a damned good reason. I stand up and take responsibility for my actions, and I've always done that. So there's nothing to be ashamed of. 
     "It just the way it went."


           Friday's qualifying results for Saturday night's Irwin Tools 500 at Bristol, Ten.




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