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After Denny Hamlin's kicking Richmond win, rivals are a bit dejected about title hopes

  Crew chief Mike Ford, champagne in hand and dousing his driver Denny Hamlin, is happy here, but concedes he's worried about Loudon, Dover and Kansas, the NASCAR playoffs' first three stops (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Jeff Gordon late Saturday night, after yet another remarkably unproductive performance, sounded almost like a beaten man, when considering the NASCAR championship chase upcoming.
    "I wish we were as close to some victories in the last five or six races....like we were in the first 10 races," Gordon was saying after his struggle to finish 12th in the Richmond 400. 
    "At Michigan (last month) we had a car capable of winning. 
     "But -- and I don't know if it's Hendrick (Motorsports) as a whole, or just us -- we seem to have lost a little bit.
     "I'm hoping the things we have in store for the final 10 get that back.
     "With this car these days you can be off the tiniest bit and it can look like a lot. And then you can find a little thing and all of a sudden it looks like you've gained a ton. 
     "That's why you just never count yourself out, even when things aren't going well."
    So is Jeff Gordon really a title contender, or just another guy in the chase?
     "I'm not saying we are not still championship-caliber for these final 10, but I do feel we don't have the capabilities we have had at this point -- like last year. 
    "Last year at this point we were feeling more confident than we are now.
    "But I've been around racing long enough to know that so many things are going to happen over the next couple weeks that are going to surprise people....
    "We might be a major factor in that, or we might not."


   And just how many of these 12 playoff-bound drivers will really be championship contenders? (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

   To put it all succinctly: Gordon is still winless. His last tour win was in April 2009.
   Yes, he's run well enough to win several races this season, but too often he's simply been off his game.
   Indeed, the whole Hendrick Motorsports camp has seemed a bit off. Dale Earnhardt Jr., for example, called his run here "one of my worst performances."
    Teammate Mark Martin, who nearly won last year's championship, didn't even make the playoff cut.
    Earnhardt's explanation, after finishing 34th: "We were trying something new, and it just didn't work out.
    "We ran a rear-spring package we've never run before, front spindles we've never run before. Just trying to find something to help us get better.
    "Running like we've been running all year long ain't good enough, so we figured we'd go in a different direction.
    "We're going testing Monday, and we'll do as much testing as we can the rest of the year, to figure out what's wrong and to get a package that will work."
    Since all four Hendrick teams have access to the same technical data, it seems quite strange that the Earnhardt-Martin half of the operation has been so consistently off this season, and indeed still at this late point in the season.
    Jimmie Johnson should be a title contender, of course.
    But Gordon after this 400 didn't really seem optimistic himself.
    Gordon says it may be four or five weeks into the playoffs before the title picture becomes clear.
   "Maybe there's no clear-cut favorite right now...it's really hard to predict who that is going to be," Gordon says.
   "The only way to see what we have got is get through the first three or four races.
     "I'm disappointed we have had three or four opportunities to win this year and didn't get it done.  Had we done that, I think we would be as much of a favorite as anybody...
    "We have to go out now and have 10 spectacular weeks; we can't just be consistent, that's not going to win the championship...unless we are consistently second.
    "We realize we have to step it up and we have to step it up big.
    "But if you're Jimmie, if you're Denny, those guys can (just) go be consistent. They don't have to win.
    "I expect those guys will win.  But if they are consistent, they are going to be really, really tough to beat.
    "Denny was extremely strong the end of last year.  I've actually been surprised at times this year they haven't been stronger. 
     "But they are really coming into their own, showing their strength, and I think they are going to be really, really tough in the championship."
    What to make of Hamlin's win? Well, considering that teammate Kyle Busch was right on his tail at the end and that teammate Joey Logano finished fourth....and that Hamlin was very strong too at Atlanta last week (before losing an engine), Gordon says he's a bit worried:
    "Everybody knew Denny was going to be strong here; it's one of his best tracks. 
    "But they have found something lately.  I don't know what it is, but they have found something.  If they can keep that going into the chase, they are going to be very, very tough."
    Gordon points to one issue that other drivers will agree with: qualifying is increasingly important. "And we need to qualify better. We have not qualified good since Pocono. Not really sure what's going on with that, because we qualified good earlier in the season and we are known for being good qualifiers."
   Another issue that no one seems sure about – how will this 'boys, have at it' philosophy play out in the chase? Will drivers still try to be wild and crazy? Are some drivers preparing for paybacks?
   Gordon – remember Sonoma – realizes he's ticked some rivals off and they might be gunning for him:
   "Sure, definitely...but there's nothing I can do about it," Gordon says.
   "I made choices, and things happened. That's part of racing. 
    "You hope over time maybe guys are thinking a little bit different about it.
    "But I don't know.
     "Every time I'm around those guys, they race me really, really hard, to make life difficult...and I expect that.  But they haven't tried to wreck me yet.
   "I don't know if they are waiting for the chase or not.
    "But I still have to be nice to them...because you know if you rub them the wrong way, they have got more than one reason to get back to you.  And that's not how you're going to win a championship."

    After Saturday night's Richmond 400, if NASCAR were still using the traditional championship points system, this is how the top-12 would look:

   1 – Kevin Harvick     3,723 points
   2 – Kyle Busch          down 228
   3 – Jeff Gordon         down 230
   4 – Carl Edwards      down 296
   5 – Jimmie Johnson  down 306
   6 – Tony Stewart      down 306
   7 – Jeff Burton          down 333
   8 – Matt Kenseth       down 377
   9 – Denny Hamlin     down 381
   10 – Kurt Busch        down 386
   11 – Clint Bowyer     down 502
   12 – Greg Biffle         down 546


   Denny Hamlin (11) outrunning Jimmie Johnson, the four-time NASCAR champion, Saturday night in Richmond (Photo: Toyota Motorsports)

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