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Jimmie Johnson's a proud new papa...and just how much sleep is he going to get these next few weeks?

  Jimmie Johnson signing autographs in Chicago, before flying home to his new daughter (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   JOLIET, Ill.
   Ah-hah! Maybe now, finally, Jimmie Johnson's rivals have him right where they want him.
   Johnson, commuting nightly from here to his wife's hospital bedside in North Carolina, to enjoy the first week with his brand new daughter, still unnamed, says Wednesday's birth "was the greatest day of my life."
   And Friday he put Chad Knaus' car on the front row for Saturday night's Chicago 400, next to pole winner Jamie McMurray.
   But Johnson's teammate Jeff Gordon, whose wife is expecting their second child, has some words of wisdom for Johnson: "Get some sleep.
   "I'm happy for him...It's great, and I know how excited he is. The tough thing is just getting sleep.
   "It's really hard to get sleep at this time. You're so excited, and you want to be part of it in every way....
   "Then you show up at the track and realize you have to do your job.
   "My only advice would be to try to get some sleep."
   Having Johnson falling asleep at the wheel might be the only way to derail a fifth straight championship.
   Still, Johnson has to get back atop the Sprint Cup points.
   That's where Kevin Harvick is at the moment.
   And Harvick may be a good bet to follow last weekend's Daytona win with his third victory of the season: "The 1-1/2-miles have been our strong point this year. Our 10-lap speed is good."

  Jamie McMurray, on the Chicago 400 pole, is having one of his best seasons ever (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   It's halfway through the 36-race season, and Harvick and his two Richard Childress teammates, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer, have been hot. And so is Dodge's Kurt Busch...and Johnson and Gordon.
   The rest of the guys are up-and-down.
   And there may be a few question marks now surrounding the Joe Gibbs' guys. Kyle Busch had the best car at Daytona but got crashed out while leading (in a deal with Juan Pablo Montoya). Joey Logano has looked good at times. But the man suddenly under the microscope is teammate Denny Hamlin, a five-time winner already this season, but......
   Hamlin was pre-season favorite for the championship, based on his strong stretch run last fall. But then he opened the year on a down, suffered a knee injury playing pickup basketball, went through surgery, and recovery, got back in winning form....and now he's in a bit of a slump: 34th at Sonoma, 14th at Loudon, and 24th at Daytona.
    So Hamlin is center stage here.
    First, Hamlin isn't buying Johnson's no-name routine for the new kid: "The baby's got a name.  He's just not telling you. Come on, there's no way that this late in the game that they still don't have a name."
   Second, this is the season of 'Boys, have at it.' And drivers now appear to be taking that to new levels, and not just on the track.
   NASCAR CEO Brian France has raised the possibility of some major changes in the championship format for next season. That in turn has drivers in react mode.
   And some drivers are now pinpointing the 10-race chase format, with its 12-drivers re-zeroed, for criticism.
   Here's Hamlin: "I hate the constant change.  Nothing ever stays the same. 
   "Our sport was originally designed to crown the champion after 36 weeks...and that is because this is a sport where if somebody else makes a mistake, it can cost you. 
    "No other sport, if another team makes a mistake, you're the one who benefits, you're the one who wins because of it. 
    "In this sport a competitor can make a mistake and cost you.  That's why I think we originally chased this out into 36 weeks -- to make sure you brought it out into a long enough season to where the true champion was crowned every single year. 
    "The more you narrow that up (to 10 races) and keep resetting points, keep adding guys, the more you're making this a sport by chance, and luck is going to be a factor. 
    "I don't see any fair way you can reset points....
    "It makes the first of the season even more irrelevant than it already is. 
    "If they're looking for 15 million people to watch the final race, they're going to worry, because they're only going to have a million watching the regular season that doesn't even matter. 
     "I think we need to step back and think about it.
     "We've had the right champion every single year...but the more they keep making it to where mediocre drivers can have a shot, the more you are going to end up having the chance of a fluke winner of a champion, and I don't think we need that in our sport."
   Hamlin does have some suggestions for France about the chase: change up the tracks in the playoffs: "Mix that up. We've had the same tracks.  Move those tracks around. 
    "Honestly, if they want to keep Jimmie from winning a championship, those are his best race tracks, those chase tracks. 
    "Mix that up, if you want to do something."
   And that 10-point bonus a drivers gets for the start of the chase, based on his regular season wins?
   Hamlin says that's not big enough of a bonus: "Winning is not as big as what people think it is.  Those 10 points is not nearly enough.
   "Say I win 10 races before the chase; I have 100 bonus points.  I've won 10 races more than a guy who has won zero. 
    "But if I finish 18th or 20th in the first chase race, and that guy wins, he's ahead of me in points.
    "I spent 26 weeks and won 10 more races, but yet with one mediocre finish and his one good finish, we're back to equal."
    But to be honest Hamlin says he's "a little bit more old school when it comes to crowning a champion and the way that you do it."
   A 36-race 'championship chase' with all 43 drivers might be the right way.....
   And now there is the possibility of some drivers in the chase being eliminated as the chase goes on.
    Hamlin doesn't like that either. "Jimmie in 2006 had a rough start, and he rallied back to win the championship.  That was just over 10 weeks.  That's a small number (of weeks).
    "But when you eliminate guys after two races or something, if you wreck in the first one, you've got to damn near win the second one, to make sure you're not eliminated. 
    "Unless they (NASCAR) put us (in the championship chase) on our own points system -- one through 15 points, or something like that -- I don't see how an elimination thing will work.  You have to perform every single week, and our sport is not all about that.
     "There's a certain part of this sport that is about luck. In other sports it's head-to-head. 
     "When another guy makes a mistake, you win.  You can't be the one to make a mistake."
     And having 12 men in the chase is wrong, Hamlin says. "We've added more guys, and I'm not sure why -- to make it to where more guys had a chance," Hamlin said. "Truly, there's no reason a guy who's 12th in points, or 15th in points, should have a right to race for a championship, where the first 26 races he ran horrible or mediocre. 
    "How is that fair that he gets a chance to win a championship just in the last 10? 
     "I'm not a fan of racing by chance. And the more they tweak it, the more they make it to reset the points over and over, it's nothing but about luck."
     Okay, that's big picture stuff. What about the smaller picture this weekend -- and what about Hamlin here?
   "We just had a superspeedway race (Daytona), which really doesn't equate to normal racing," Hamlin says. "We had Loudon, where we didn't perform well; but (teammate) Kyle Busch performed decent.  A road course was in there too.
    "Nobody stays on top forever; you're not going to be the best car every week. 
    "We've been working on some different stuff within our team the last few weeks.  Other than that, it's just more coincidence (not finishing well) than anything else. 
    "This is the first race back to the normal racing, other than Loudon."
     But is speed an issue here for Hamlin and his teammates? Hamlin was only 17th fastest Friday.
     Maybe, maybe not.
    "We were not very good at Michigan either in practice, but in the race we picked that up tremendously," Hamlin says, referring to the most recent of his five tour wins in the spring. "We were thinking about that now – it's really all about feel (here): The car has to be okay in race trim.
    "I don't think we need to be concerned with times right now."
    Actually gas mileage might be the key.

   Denny Hamlin: Some advice for NASCAR. Well, they wanted the boys to have at it.... (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Denny speakin' the truth.

Denny speakin' the truth. I'm glad it's not just the fans who see that winning should mean a heckuva lot more than "having a good points day" by finishing 7th-12th. Right now, it really doesn't. The top 20 or Top 25 should be the only ones that get points, also. I don't want trash on the track after they wreck, and I don't want to see start a park guys getting any points.

I'm okay with the Chase. 12 is enough though. If you can't make the Top 12, sorry. Look at other sports. Cleveland won the most games in the regular season in the NBA, and they don't make the Finals. My point is that once the playoffs start, the "best" team does not always win. You have to catch fire in the playoffs. If you don't like the Chase concept, that's okay. If you embrace the Chase concept, then you also have to accept that 1st, 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th best team in the regular season may not win the Championship. I'm okay with that. Much better than the Championship being decided in September. This idea by NASCAR to try to bring it down to the final lap is not a good one though. Too gimmicky. Either give even more points for wins during the first 26 races, or leave the system alone. As Mike has said, they need to be looking more towards changing the venues of the Chase than tweaking it's process.

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