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Halfway through the NASCAR season, and the championship race is suddenly rather unsettled

 Kevin Harvick: He's atop the NASCAR standings, he's got three tour wins. So is he the man to beat for the title? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   SPARTA, Ky.
   So whom to pick in this year's Sprint Cup championship?
   Suddenly that's not quite as easy as it seemed a few weeks ago.
  Losing the points lead, Carl Edwards says "puts us back on the offensive.

   "I am curious to see how we can perform."
   Kyle Busch too has fallen a bit in performance.
   Kurt Busch has come on strong finally.
    Denny Hamlin has been off more than on. Same with Jimmie 'Five-time' Johnson.
   Kevin Harvick is new man atop the NASCAR standings, and he's got three wins. But……
   Why suddenly no seemingly dominant driver on the tour?
   "That is a very good question," Jeff Gordon says. "When the season started, I thought Carl had the ability to put that together, or another Roush (Ford) driver. They seemed to be the strongest.
    "But some of the teams that were behind have caught up. I don't know if they (Edwards and Roush teammates) have progressed as much as other teams; they had an edge on us when the season started.
     "Kevin Harvick has been very strong…but his performance has not been up to maybe what I thought it could be, though he does have three wins.
    "Then you have Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, who have been off to a little bit of a slow start.
    "The cool thing is there is no clear-cut favorite right now."



Jeff Gordon: Game face. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


    Kyle Busch, Johnson, Gordon, Paul Menard and Edwards all appear to have a leg up on their rivals here at the moment, after a long, hot Thursday of testing, with data-acquisition computer packages on the cars.
   But Friday, amid some drizzling rain, drivers switch to their Kentucky 400 primaries to see if everything those high-tech engineers figured out Thursday night back at the motels really works. And the incessant showers kept teams bottled up.
   Despite NASCAR racing Nationwide and Trucks here for some 10 years, and several years of using this 1-1/2-mile track for intensive testing, no one here so far seems very confident about what to expect in Saturday night's 400 (7:45 pm ET).
   Kyle Busch opened the longer than usual week with a hard-fought win in Thursday's Truck race, after starting last.
   "This place, you never get a comfort here at Kentucky," Busch says. "It's such a hard race track. 
   "Turn three is my Achilles Heel; it's killing me."
    Others point to very bumpy turn one as perhaps the toughest part of the track.
   "This place is rough," Kurt Busch says. "Hey, Bruton, where's the repave? But the character in the track is fun and different…and maybe it will let us rough each other up, and put some donuts on these cars."
    The repave is coming, before next summer's race here. And more repaves are coming at Phoenix and Kansas and maybe Watkins Glen, in a surprisingly flurry of asphalt moving.


Kyle Busch: opened the weekend winning Thursday night's Truck race (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


     Edwards started the season as the hottest driver and has been a contender in nearly every race. However those 37ths at Pocono and Daytona may be taking some steam out of his sails.
   And there is the increasingly nagging feeling that something may not be going just right in those contract renegotiations with team owner Jack Roush.
    Edwards himself has become remarkably uncontroversial this season, almost Jimmie Johnson 'plain vanilla,' in an odd move. His interviews are smooth and polished, but almost too smooth and polished.
    But then this is a potential championship season and no point in ticking anyone off unnecessarily.
    But then out on the track Edwards has shown a good blend of ferocity and cool patience. And he could easily have four or five wins now.
    However Edwards has but one victory.
    Indeed at the midpoint of the season it is rather surprising that there have been 11 different winners in the 17 races. At that pace more than 20 men could win this year. The benchmark for season winners lately was the 2001 season, with 19 men winning.
    Whatever edge Edwards hoped to have here, from his Nationwide runs, has seemingly vanished.
   "The Nationwide cars drive so much differently," he says. "The Cup cars, you are off the throttle, the front end of the car is loaded longer in the corner, and the bumps feel different…the way you apply the throttle is different.
    "I haven't driven a Cup car here for a long time…since we tested in like 2004. Driving down in these corners, they are very treacherous; they don't look like it, but they are. Especially turn three -- It is very flat and deceivingly slippery.
     "I wouldn't call it a bumpy track -- I would say it is a track that has a lot of character….the bumps are part of it.
     "You could chase a guy down, pressure him, get him to go through the bumps the wrong way and slide up the race track. You can make moves.
    "The last Nationwide race (here) I worked on Joey Logano for laps down there (turn one), and I couldn't figure out a way to get around him. I had all sorts of options, but I couldn't get him."

  Dale Earnhardt Jr. (L) and crew chief Steve Letarte: It would be nice if this sport's most popular driver could make a run at the championship (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

  Saturday night, to hear these drivers talk, expect a lot of cautions, in turns one and three.
     "Kyle is right: Those bumps will make things interesting," Edwards says. "If you dive down there under someone, the guy on the outside might want to take that into account, that the car might not stick as well on the bottom as a guy wants to.
    "Turn three isn't based on bumps but has the same feeling, because the car can slide sideways there.
    "I don't think a guy will sit in the lead and run away with it. I think someone will be able to make something happen."
   And if that someone is Edwards, he says he'll try to make his post-victory charge right to the top of the grandstands.


   Robby Gordon is skipping Saturday night's Kentucky 400 and flying to Las Vegas for Sunday's launch of the week-long 'Bullrun,' in a specially prepared Chrysler Jeep. The finish line is Miami.
   "It's basically a modern day Cannonball Run, just set up like the Dakar Rally (with checkpoints),' Gordon says. "It's run on public highways within speed limits….but the guy that gets there first still wins."
   The day's route isn't released until that morning.

   At Daytona Carl Edwards was stunned at the heat generated inside his car after he damaged the 'crush panels' near the rear wheel when he slapped the wall early.
   "Whatever was going on back there it was pumping the exhaust fumes directly into the car.
   "That is the hottest I have ever been in my life by a big margin.
    "Once they put the crush panel back in, it was good.
    "I don’t think the car or driver could make it for more than 30 minutes or something like that. I think things would be on fire.
    "It opened my eyes to how hot things can be in those cars if you knock those crush panels out. 
     "I don’t know how many races I have run in, but I have never had that situation before. Not anything like it.
     "If the hottest I had ever been before was say, 140 degrees, it felt like it was 240 degrees.
     "It was a whole different dimension of heat. It got my attention.
     "The guys were mad at me I didn't pull in and fix it right away. But you can't pull in and say 'Hey, I am too hot.'
     "But I was doing the math -- we had 100-and-something laps to go, and I'm thinking 'I don't know if this is going to work.'"

    The late Daytona pit stops that teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. made – out of sequence with each other – wound up separating them and possibly costing both a shot at the win. And Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus took some heat for it, for seemingly taking Earnhardt out of the hunt.
    Earnhardt says the dust-up is overblown.
   "They made the decision to do one thing and we did another," Earnhardt says. "It didn't really bother me at all.
    "I figured Jimmie would still have a good opportunity to get up to me and help us. And we pretty much were in fine shape until people forgot how to drive -- or people thought they could disobey the laws of physics.
    "You run all night long to get to the end of that race, and you can see the finish line…and you just crash for some reason. It's pretty stupid.
    "If they want to come pit, they've got to come pit. I can't argue with that. I'm fine with that. I don't have a problem with what he did. No big deal. The caution was out; good time to go down pit road."
   But the fan response…..
    "These people are passionate," Earnhardt says. "They get it in their minds what they think is right and what they think happened and they run with it.
    "People have strong opinions.
    "I heard about how they beat on Jimmie a little bit on his Twitter page. And I called him up and said 'Now you know why I don't have Twitter. I'd be getting it every week.'"
   Johnson says he was intrigued with the Twitter War: "I was really impressed and appreciate the support from Junior Nation...and then also my fan base defending me. It was my first real experience to how active social media can be following a race."

From the email-bag, TL says:

What part of a sagging economy do some of these so called Racing experts not understand? There R so many race fans out of work and they have had to cut back on so many thing in there lives just to try and stay a float. Then these Race Bloggers and Analyst rip the fact that attendance is down TV rating are down, how about taking this in to consideration; 1 People have had to cut out Cable TV, 2 people can't afford to travel and buy tickets for live event right now, that doesn't mean they are not race fans anymore, 3 there is not a sport out there that has a loyalty factor like Motorsports Fans, 4 Spend the amount of monies to still make their family Vacation a trip to a Race weekend, 5 MLB,NBA,NFL they all have had slow downs in Attendance's, Collectable Sales, but no slow down in seeing those over paid so called HERO'S going to jail for every despicable and degenerate type of action that your common street thug carry's out everyday, 5 compare our sports integrity and benevolent efforts up against any other and you will see we come out by far on top. So in closing Stop complaining about stuff that is really not a factor in the sport declining it isn't the Economy Decline not our Fans. Motorsports is alive and well taking in to consideration the fate of our ECONOMY. Or Mike don't you agree???

i agree the economy isn't

i agree the economy isn't helping things here. which is why i dont like the idea of nascar being relegated to cable, rather than network; i still struggle to find speed on the road....
and travel expenses are horrendous, for everyone.
which is one reason i'm not convinced this sport needs to be telling owners to spend extra money on corn fuel and expensive gas cans and electronic fuel injection, and other gimmicks that dont add to the show but just drive up expenses. when the sport gets so expensive that sponsors start bailing out, we're all in trouble.

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