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It's red, hot and bluesy Kansas City: but how many of these NASCAR championship contenders have already lost their footing?

   Kansas City skyline, from atop Kansas Speedway: Hot town...but some of these title contenders have suddenly gone cold (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   KANSAS CITY, Kansas
   No one who watched it will ever forget it: Carl Edwards' daring last lap bid to 'bank' his car off the fourth turn wall and slip around leader Jimmie Johnson in their battle for the win in last fall's 400 at Kansas Speedway.
   Certainly not Johnson, who concedes he was a bit surprised at Edwards' move: "I know he caught some criticism, but I thought it was pretty awesome.
    "It caught my attention when he went flying by and I could still hear him in the throttle. I thought 'Where in the hell is he going?'
    "His plan was to rim-ride it around. I thought it was a great move; some people thought it was risky.
    "But there was enough room for us to cross paths and not get together.
     "I kind of liked the move myself."
    Probably in part because it didn't quite work. Johnson won, and he went on to win Martinsville and Phoenix too, en route to his third straight title.
    Edwards, and most of NASCAR's other championship title contenders, come here with that kind of desperation in mind, as strong as Jimmie Johnson and teammate Mark Martin have been during the first two weeks of the 10-race chase.
    Johnson, just 10 points behind Sprint Cup tour leader Martin, has a heck of a record in these championship chases. In fact he has single-handedly made the 26-race regular season all but meaningless.
   Consider: 12 men make the playoffs, and this year for example there are maybe eight legitimate championship contenders. So Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can spend the first seven months of the season 'testing,' and maybe even resting. Hit a few home runs, like Indianapolis. Get ready for the chase.
    This season, taking the Jack Roush guys pretty much out of title contention, barring a major turnaround, and all Johnson has to do is keep an eye on Martin, Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, and wait for the rest of the pack to run out of steam or make a few mistakes.
     Edwards and teammate Greg Biffle appear on the ropes. They're both winless this season, and neither had anything for Johnson Sunday at Dover, a track where both Roush men have run well.
    "I hope we can be as strong as we were at Kansas last year," Edwards says. "That was one of the most exciting races I've ever been a part of."
    Of course it's a homecoming of sorts for Edwards, from Missouri.
    At this point of the year there's little prospect of any major shakeup in the balance of power on the stock car tour. Or rather the imbalance of power – Rick Hendrick-powered teams have been dominant, the Richard Childress and Roush teams have been all but missing in action over the summer, and the Joe Gibbs team has been erratic – consider Denny Hamlin at Dover.

Let's see now: if a driver runs over an airhose, it's a NASCAR penalty...but if he runs over a crewman, hey, that's racing? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Yet reflecting on Alan Kulwicki's amazing 1992 comeback for the title….
    Kulwicki was 278 points down with just six races left that season when he pulled out of Dover – with two wrecked race cars and a dismal 34th finish.  
    But then the comeback:
    He picked up 87 points the next weekend, at Martinsville; and he added 47 points at North Wilkesboro, and then 97 points at Charlotte.
    With that run, Kulwicki went the next week to Rockingham just 47 points down.
    He finally hit a pothole at Rockingham, and went to Phoenix 85 points down.
    But he scored another 55 points in Arizona, the next-to-last race, and went to the Atlanta finale only 30 points out of the lead…in what was a five-man fight for the title.
    After Davey Allison crashed at Atlanta, the title battle was down to Kulwicki versus Bill Elliott, and the title hinged on the man who would lead the most laps that day and get that points bonus. Kulwicki, during a late green flag run, stretch his fuel a lap further than Elliott and wound up the champion.
    Stewart, this year the only owner-driver since Kulwicki to make a title bid, still calls that "one of the most remarkable accomplishments I've ever seen in this sport."
    But then Jimmie 'the machine' Johnson wasn't in that field.
    Any dream of such a comeback this season is probably just that, a dream.
    Consider Kasey Kahne, 189 points down: not only does he have to fight back into contention, he's got to do it with more turmoil behind the scenes – and in the headlines – than any two other teams.
    So, uh, Kasey, what's this deal about some Saudi prince wanting to buy into the team?
   "I don't know what's going on there," Kahne insists.
   And he's probably right. In fact everyone else on the team too, including Richard Petty, whose name is on the franchise, passed that buck to team owner George Gillett, who is up to his ears in that Liverpool soccer thing and trying to find more sponsors for that.
   Gillett, who hasn't held a major press conference on anything much in some two years, still isn't saying anything about what's going on in his financial dealings, or what any of that might mean for the four-car Richard Petty Motorsports operation or the proposed 'merger' with Doug Yates' Ford operation.
   But, hey, if the Dallas Cowboys are worth $1.65 billion, and they're playing in that spiffy new, headline-grabbing billion-dollar stadium, well, 
if Gillett can help pump up this NASCAR deal, more power to him….particularly with the low TV ratings NASCAR has been getting.
     Kahne says he doesn't even ask about all that stuff anymore: "I used to get too much (information about inside-team matters), and some things didn't happen.
    "You get too much stuff, with what's going on behind the scenes…and a lot of it never happens because they're trying to figure how to make things happen, and it doesn't happen at the end of the day in some situations."
   Like that Toyota photo shoot for Budweiser a couple weeks ago, maybe.
  "I don't know if they've quit giving me information unless it was true stuff….but now I don't get a whole lot of information, unless it's something they're really working hard on and trying to make happen," Kahne says.
    "It's just a little different situation these days.
     "I don't necessarily care. I just want Budweiser on my car, and the best parts and pieces, and I'm happy enough."
    Of course Kahne has more mundane things to worry about at the moment, like engine reliability. He blew an engine at Loudon, and teammate Elliott Sadler blew an engine at Dover.
   So Kahne says he's going back to the old R05 Dodge engine here this week. "It will be all about reliability," Kahne says of the new R06 versus venerable R05. "If they think they can get it (the R06) back where it's really reliable like the R5, I think we would probably go back to it.
    "What I told them was that we have some points to make up and if we have any more issues…we're screwed, we have no chance.
    "The very little power that you gain with the R6 is not nearly enough power for me to say 'Let's take a chance.'"

  Jimmie Johnson holding off wild and crazy Carl Edwards last fall at Kansas Speedway (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

The great chase equalizers...

Whoever is leading after the Martinsville & Talladega races will probably take it all. Those two races are THE GREAT EQUALIZERS in the Chase, meaning the attrition of cars falling out of the race, laps down and/or crashing out are high. Which may hit some of the major Chase players. If you qualify bad at Martinsville, you need to get up on the wheel quick or be lapped. At Talladega you can hang back til the end then lose it in the end like Carl Edwards last year or get caught up in "the big one" early in the race. Game over.

Notice how all the tracks that are at least 40 years old put on the best racin' in NASCAR.

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