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Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Denny Hamlin would like to rewind the season....Jeff Gordon would like to just rewind Kansas City

  Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- The most popular driver in NASCAR, but mired in a long winless streak (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR).

   By Mike Mulhern


   All those high hopes back when the season started, well, for a lot of drivers and teams things just haven't panned out that well.
   And now, heading into Round Five of the 10-race playoffs, Saturday night's Bank of America 500, the NASCAR championship chase appears to be boiling down to Jimmie Johnson versus Carl Edwards versus Kevin Harvick, and a few others trying to hang in there and hope for those three to stumble.

   Which, with Talladega just days away, could well happen.
   Still, for most in the field here at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it's already 2012.
   But – and here's a warning – the way a team goes down the stretch typically indicates how well it will open the new season.
   -- When Harvick and the Richard Childress teams began their turnaround in 2009, first indications came at Indianapolis in late July, and they carried it through the rest of the season.
   -- When Carl Edwards and the Jack Roush teams began their turnaround in 2010, first indications came at Daytona in early July, and they carried it through the rest of the season.
   At the moment some of these playoff teams that have faded from contention don't appear to be on any stretch charge. In fact some appear to be running backwards.

   Consider Dale Earnhardt Jr.
   This, remember, is the year that, back when it started, Earnhardt figured would offer him his best chance yet in for the long-awaited breakout since joining Rick Hendrick for the 2008 season.
   Earnhardt this year would be running as teammate with Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, and Earnhardt's new crew chief, Steve Letarte, is the guy that had run Jeff Gordon's team the past few years.
   Alas, Earnhardt hasn't quite had that breakout.
   He's led only 50 laps. His NASCAR 'driver rating' is only 15th  best. And his last tour victory was in the late spring of 2008.
   Aside from that third at Chicago four weeks ago, Earnhardt and Letarte have been mired in something of a slump stretching back to June. Earnhardt has led just eight laps since the Memorial Day weekend 600 here back in May.
   Yes, Earnhardt and Letarte did make the playoffs, but after opening with that third, they've scored a 17th at New Hampshire, a 24th at Dover, and a 14th at Kansas.  



Jeff Gordon's game face (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   And consider Denny Hamlin, and the Joe Gibbs camp, and indeed the whole Toyota operation.
   The second half of this season – a season in which Hamlin was expected to be a championship contender – he has all  but vanished from the playing field. Aside from a good August run at Pocono, one of his best tracks, Hamlin has been less than just mediocre – how to explain a 31st at  Chicago, a 29th at Loudon, an 18th at Dover, a 16th at Kansas, all playoff races?
   Maybe it's not just Hamlin, maybe it's Toyota. What's been going on in the Toyota camp? Some engine shakeups, which still are murky waters. Hamlin is no longer running Joe Gibbs motors from Mark Cronquist's in-house shop, but instead is running Toyota TRD motors. It's part of an effort by Toyota to help buoy the Michael Waltrip operation, which has been less than outstanding in its time on the tour.
   And what to make of teammate Kyle Busch's sudden 'slump?' In the playoffs Busch and crew chief Dave Roger haven't even been a top-10 team, much less contenders to win.
   Third teammate Joey Logano hasn't done much either, and speculation about the future shape of that operation is widespread again here, with talk that maybe Jason Ratcliff, Busch's Nationwide crew chief, might take over Logano's team for 2012 if Greg Zipadelli moves on. There has been speculation for months that Zipadelli might leave the Gibbs operation at the end of the year and move to Tony Stewart's Chevy camp.


Jimmie Johnson: On target for another championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   Does Toyota have enough horsepower? It certainly looks like Toyota might be low man on the totem pole. Chevrolet and Ford clearly have plenty of power; NASCAR's own chassis dyno tests showed Chevrolet the tour kingpin in the dyno room. And Penske men Brad Keselowski and Kurt Busch don't appear to be at any horsepower disadvantage.
   "We do have the oldest engine, among the four carmakers," Hamlin says. "The others all have newer engines. Maybe we need to politick NASCAR for a new engine."
   Indeed, Toyota teams appear to have been hit by more engine issues than the other car makers for whatever reason.
   Earnhardt? Johnson appears on target for what would be an amazing sixth straight Cup championship…while Earnhardt seems suddenly mired, about a 16th place runner, on average since late June.
   Earnhardt, to be blunt, just doesn't seem to have caught fire. Or have the fires gone out?
   His season, he says "is an improvement. But we want to win races, and it is going to be a disappointment if we do not win a race.
   "We are happy with the gains we have made; the team and Steve expect more, and I do too.
   "We are happy that we gained…but we are not winning enough races and running as well as we would like to."



Denny Hamlin: The season that wasn't (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    And what about Kyle Busch?  Haven't heard much from him lately.
   He can win Nationwide races with regularity (eight this season, in his 19 starts).  And he has won four Cup races, Bristol, Richmond, Kentucky and Michigan, with seconds at Phoenix and Pocono.
    However since that Michigan win in mid-August Busch seems to have slumped: in his last seven runs Busch has been, on average, just a 13th-place finisher. Hardly championship performances.
   And Busch agrees: "We're definitely further behind than we would have wanted to be at this point. 
   "We definitely gave up a lot of points at Chicago (22nd).  We gave up a couple points at Dover (sixth), and a few points at Kansas (11th). 
   "Loudon (11th) was about what we expected.
    "But Jimmie, if he had a better day at Loudon, he'd be a lot closer too. 
    "We just have to make sure that we keep fighting hard and not allowing discouraging runs like we've had get us down."
     Busch says part of the problem lately is "we're not finishing where we've been running.
    "Fuel issue obviously at Chicago.  Not being the best -- me not being the best, and the car not being the best -- at Loudon.  Dover, we missed it on the last run. And Kansas we got back in traffic a little bit when we came for two tires and some other guys stayed because they could make it the rest of the way.
     "It's just been little things…but certainly little things can take you out of the running."
     However lately it almost appears that Rogers and Busch have detuned their cars, perhaps to avoid engine issues. They, like Hamlin, just don't seem to have that much speed right now.
   This track could provide an indication of which way things are going for the Gibbs guys, because this is a good track usually for Kyle Busch.


   Kyle Busch: Trying not to make mistakes? Detuned? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   The most recent championship contender to fall from grace, Jeff Gordon, says at the moment it certainly looks like the title fight is down to Johnson versus Harvick versus Edwards.
   When the tour reaches Homestead for the Nov. 20th finale, "I think it will be two or three drivers," Gordon says. "…unless we win the next five races.
   "We have some work to do; we certainly not giving up on it."
    Maybe there will be some championship twists ahead…
   But anyone else hoping for a legitimate shot, Gordon says will "have to step it up in a big way.
   "Carl has shown it all year long. He has been hanging tough, even though he has had some tough races. That shows a championship-caliber team. But they are going to have to step up their performance."
   Because Edwards has won only once so far this season.
   Johnson and Knaus, Gordon says "have to make sure they do not make any mistakes."
   And Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin, Gordon says, have shown maddening consistency: "Consistently the top-5 (eight, with four wins) and top-10 (16 times in 30 starts).
   "They do not have a lot of big strong strengths, but they do not have a lot of weaknesses either."
   And that blown engine last Sunday, the blow that took him out of the game? "You don't let it linger long; we have already moved on from that," Gordon insists.
   Maybe. But probably not. Gordon, at 40, is already on the far side of the hill….
   And you can sense his disappointment: "This has been a great year, no matter what happens. We were extremely excited about coming into this chase with momentum and wins (three, Atlanta, Pocono and Phoenix)."
    And at Kansas last Sunday for much of the race Gordon was looking at a top-three finish, which would have kept him hot in the chase.
    But that engine left him 34th. To fall back this far in the points is very disappointing," Gordon concedes.


     Carl Edwards: Can he topple Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

Same old song from little

Same old song from little Dale. He has the best equipment money can buy, and still can't win. Instead of looking for some real talent, what does Hendrick do, he re-signs him for another 5 years. What part of Jr.s performance over the last 3 seasons makes any owner look at his record objectively and say "man, we need to wrap that guy up before somebody else gets him"? Maybe they can get NASCAR to help out here before the end of the season and get Jr. a win so that all of his fans will be pumped up during the offseason.

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