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Hamlin, Gordon, Busch, Kenseth: Is the hole too deep already?

   Ah, New Hampshire means lobster for lunch at the track (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern


   So are Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth – who all had a bad Monday in the Chicago 400 – now all but out of the title chase?
   Is the hole already too deep?
   Well, what is the furthest behind that an eventual champion has had to rally to take the NASCAR title?

   Alan Kulwicki's 1992 charge, of course, is legendary.
   Kulwicki crashed three times – yes, three times – at Dover that late September weekend. And he left the Delaware track a whopping 278 points down, to some of the sport's most powerful teams. But the low-budget Kulwicki and crew chief Paul Andrews rallied to win the title, in one of the most dramatic finishes, in the Atlanta finale.
   Then of course there's Darrell Waltrip's 1985 comeback. He was a sizeable 206 points behind coming out of Darlington's Southern 500 that Labor Day weekend, but rallied to the title.
   And Jimmie Johnson?
   Beating Jimmie Johnson may be the mantra of title rivals this fall.
   And there certainly looks like a good cast to challenge him.

    Last fall rivals called Jimmie Johnson 'vulnerable.' Well, just check out his chase stats (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   These playoffs might still be as wacky and unpredictable as the first chase race was at Chicago Monday, with gas mileage stretching finishes anticipated by drivers here and at Phoenix and probably a couple other tracks too.
   Johnson finished 10th at Chicago, running out of gas while looking at a gas-saving third place finish (in what on another day could easily have been the winning car).
   And Johnson here in practice has shown a bad-fast car.
   Maybe Johnson is determined to take command of this chase early on, rather than wait for his rivals to give him a late playoff opening.
   Johnson's best comeback?
   That 2006 run was pretty impressive. He finished a painful 39th in the chase opener here at Loudon, and left 139 points down. Then a 13th at Dover and a 14th at Kansas City, and by the time the tour hit Talladega Johnson was 165 points behind and fading. And his 24th at that Talladega didn't help him much either.
    But then Johnson caught fire, second at Charlotte, winner at Martinsville, second at Atlanta, second at Texas….and he went on to beat Matt Kenseth by 56 points for the title.

    Jeff Gordon: a bad start to the playoffs at Chicago, and now he's got to play catchup (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Last season?
   Remember now, 2010 was the season that Johnson was widely considered 'vulnerable.'
   So how did he fare in the playoffs?
   A painful 25th here in the opener.
   And then over the next seven weeks, Johnson won Dover, finished 2nd at Kansas City, third at California/Los Angeles, third at Charlotte, fifth at Martinsville, seventh at Talladega, ninth at Texas.   
   That's an amazing 4.5 finishing average over nearly two months.
   Still he went into Phoenix, the next to last chase race, 33 points behind red-hot Denny Hamlin (the Texas winner).
   And Hamlin, at Phoenix, was dominating the day and on the verge of driving the stake into Johnson's title bid….until the final 73 miles turned into a fuel mileage run. Hamlin miscalculated, stumbled home 12th, and opened the door for Johnson at Homestead.
   The miscalculation on fuel at Phoenix clearly played on Hamlin's mind that week, and in the opening laps at Homestead – he came into the race still 15 points in the lead – he spun. His day, and his title, all but over.
   Johnson went on to win his fifth straight championship with a second-place finish at Homestead-Miami, by 39 points over Hamlin.

     Denny Hamlin (R) and crew chief Mike Ford: in 2010 they almost toppled Jimmie Johnson. This season they're all but out of the chase in just the first week (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   That's the setup.
    Here's Johnson's pitch, on the eve of Sunday's New Hampshire 300:
   "I think we'll see fuel mileage play a larger role in the championship than we have in years past," Johnson frets.
    "Phoenix is now repaved (a big test upcoming), and we were just there for a tire test. You can't wear that tire out on the new asphalt, so it's going to be a fuel mileage race.
    "Talladega, to a certain degree, will be a fuel mileage race too.
    "Here will be for sure.
    "We have a lot of tracks with very low tire wear that will promote fuel mileage races."
     Reflecting on last fall's Phoenix drama, and Hamlin's collapse in Homestead, after being on the verge of the championship:
    "It's so hard to know what momentum would do in that situation," Johnson says, referring to his charge and what might have happened if Hamlin hadn't miscalculated on gas.
    "When you look at the results from where we finished, versus Denny, I don't know if that math would still show us as the champion or not.
    "Maybe things would still be the same….but then there is an argument that momentum plays a role -- and we saw how unhappy Denny was (after Phoenix). I'm sure it was something internally that he lived and went on to the track in Homestead -- maybe led to a worse qualifying effort, and then his run in the race."

    Matt Kenseth: the car to beat at Chicago, maybe. But he ran out of gas....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    Johnson says he's more concerned about living in the present than reliving the past. And he says he's still stunned that he didn't make it to the finish line okay at Chicago.
     "To run out coming to the white flag…and still finish 10th , is amazing -- and shocking to me," Johnson says. "To roll all the way around the track with the engine off and still finish in the top 10…..a top-10 at the start of the chase…. I've had years where we've started far worse than that.
    "But it shows how buttoned up you need to be, top to bottom, to have a shot at this championship.
    "And fuel mileage has never really been a strong suit; it's something we know we need to be better with.
    "Tires don't fall off like they used to, and we don't have cautions like we used to, and that means pit stops are key -- two tires, no tires, no cautions, and you pit as early as you can.
    "So the game certainly has changed over the last year or year and a half."

   Carl Edwards says this gas mileage thing won't be easily dealt this any time soon.
   "I think it's going to be a bigger part of the sport," Edwards worries.
    "Until a guy can pull in, get tires on, and go past 15 cars, until we get back to that type of racing, the guy that can stay out, keep the track position, and stretch fuel mileage is going to have an advantage.
   "It's probably a by-product of the parity among cars -- the difficulty of passing, that's where I think it comes from. And it will be a bigger and bigger part."


 Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- made the playoffs, finished third in the opener...and yet still questions (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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