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Jeff Burton eyes knocking Jimmie Johnson down a notch....

    Jeff Burton (R) and crew chief Todd Berrier (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern


    Is the Rick Hendrick operation finally vulnerable?
    Can Jimmie Johnson, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin finally be beaten heads-up?
    That might seem an odd question, considering Johnson is back atop the Sprint Cup standings, with three wins in the year's first six races.
    But, while the Hendrick operation is clearly as formidable as ever, it does appear that momentum may be shifting, however slightly.
   And Jeff Burton may be primed to take advantage.
   Burton had the car to beat last time out, at Martinsville, but was foiled in the final miles by a flat tire.
   And Burton could be one of the favorites here in Saturday night's Phoenix 600-kilometer racer. That's 375 laps, around this flat, sandy one-mile.
   "Victory Lane is not occupied right now," Burton points out.
    "Because of the success they've had,"  Burton says of the Hendrick teams, "they certainly would be the favorite going into the race.
    "But they were the favorite going into Martinsville too. I thought Mark had a chance at contending for the win, but none of the others seemed to have what it takes.  
     "You have to go earn it every week. Past success doesn't guarantee future success.
    "But there is no doubt the Hendrick cars will be teams you have to deal with."
    But maybe Richard Childress' guys too, like Burton. The Virginian, now 42, has never won a NASCAR title; his best run was third in 2000.
    Now though Childress' men finally appear back in the game.
    "I think we're ready to challenge for a championship...but I have to tell you we haven't challenged for the championship," Burton says warily.  
   "Like I've told you guys several times before, you are what your record says you are.  
    "We haven't capitalized. I think we have the speed to contend for the championship; I think we have the team, and the fundamental basics, to contend and win a championship.  
     "But we have to start executing better."
     Burton certainly did at Martinsville. And he had a shot to win California too.
    However too many little mistakes have plagued the team this spring. "I lost us spots at the end of the race at Atlanta...we lost spots at Bristol that we shouldn't have lost...we lost spots at the end of a lot of races that was our own doing," Burton complains. "We have to stop doing that.  
    "We were in a great position to win California and didn't pull it off.  
     "After California everybody said Jimmie was lucky. And, yeah, he had a lucky break. But they executed. And that's what we haven't done as well as we need to do. That has been our weak point.  
     "Our weak point has not been putting ourselves in the position to succeed...our weak point has been making the final success happen in the last 10 percent of the race.  
     "That's what we need to improve on if we want to win a championship.
     "We're a young team, and we're still learning how to work together.  I wish it was coming quicker.  
     "A lot of things have come quicker than I thought...and some things have come slower. The execution has come a little slower than I thought it would.  That's the thing we're focusing on right now."
    "I don't view that as a bad day," Burton insists. "We had a bad finish -- but we had a great day.  
    "We had a hole in the tire, and there was nothing we could have done to prevent that.  
     "We ran well, we led a bunch of laps, and we were in a great position to win.  We were better than he (Hamlin) was; he was having trouble getting off the corner.  My car had gotten better, and I think his car had gotten a little worse.  
    "You have to separate the things you can control and the things you can't. And you have to define those things.  
     "Some people make the mistake of blaming everything on luck. But (that Martinsville flat) was just bad luck."


  Newcomer Justin Allgaier, now a NASCAR winner. Is he ready to move on up the ladder? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   One of the more curious NASCAR stories this spring surrounds newcomer Justin Allgaier, Roger Penske's latest find.
   Allgaier just notched his first big NASCAR win three weeks ago at Bristol, in Penske's Nationwide car.
   Now there is increasing speculation that Allgaier, soon to turn 24, may be ready to step up to Cup....perhaps as Penske's fourth Sprint Cup driver, with Kurt Busch, Brad Keselowski and Sam Hornish.
   Is Allgaier ready for the rough-and-tumble of the Cup world?
   What is the Penske-Allgaier game plan? And how much depends on Nationwide sponsor Verizon – which is barred from putting its company logos on a Sprint Cup car?
    "The only plan is there is no plan," Allgaier says.
     "Obviously Roger is very passionate about the sport and wants to make things happen in a time frame that makes the most sense.  I basically told Roger  and everybody that makes the decision at Penske Racing that I want the opportunity eventually.  
    "I signed the contract at Penske Racing because I felt like that was a great opportunity.
    "But I also don't want to ruin my career --  There are guys that have made that transition way too quickly...and I don't want to be that guy.  
    "I want to be able to win races over here and be competitive.
    "Right now our shop is very large, but I would say we're at capacity for what we're trying to accomplish.  We're building race cars left and right...body and pit crews are going like crazy.  
    "There's a lot that would have to go into it (creating a fourth Cup team). Penske Racing is very good at being planned.  I don't think we would jump into anything.
     "So I'm kind of riding...focusing on the Nationwide side.
    "With Verizon being on our Nationwide car and not being able to go to the Cup side, I want to make sure it's the right opportunity and we don't ruin any relationships.
    "And I'm enjoying the Nationwide series right now.  
     "Whatever happens is on their timetable."
    Juan Pablo Montoya's timetable is now, and he's becoming frustrated with all those problems that have him mired so deep in the standings, 25th.
    "We are a top-five team, easily. We run in the top-five every week," Montoya complained. "We're there -- Always one of the fastest cars in practice, qualifying even at race pace.
    "But we had blown tires last week, and the week before something else happened -- they wrecked in front of us.
    "There is always something.....blown motors.
     "Everything that can go wrong has gone wrong so far.
     "Hopefully it will change a little in the next few weeks.
    "We haven't really made a mistake ourselves to say 'This one is on us.'"

    Green? Not Tony Stewart's favorite color.
    But that's what Stewart's typically bright red car is painted this weekend, as a promo for Earth Day, April 22.

     Carl Edwards is a dedicated heavy-duty bike ride, and he plans to once again ride the 200 miles from his Columbia, Mo., home to Gateway Speedway in St. Louis for a NASCAR race later this season.
   Clint Bowyer's Emporia, Kansas, home is about the same distance from Kansas Speedway as Edwards' Missouri home, about 100 miles.
   Has Bowyer thought about challenging Edwards to a bike race home-to-Kansas City?
   Bowyer just laughed: "I'll probably do it on my Harley.  It seems a lot smarter...and I can listen to a radio and enjoy the benefits of cruise control.
   "I can just kick back, relax, and look good doing it.  
    "I don't know that you're going to look too good after riding a bicycle 2-1/2 hours. And everybody just thinks you're a little bit crazy.  
     "We've had a lot of fun with that: I pick on Carl quite a bit for doing that.  
    "He did that last year, and he couldn't walk for like a week after doing that. I'm like 'Gee, Carl, I wonder why?'
    "He's going to do that again.  I guess he forgot how sore his rear-end was.  
     "I'd do it on a Harley, not on a bicycle."


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   Carl Edwards: Biking 200 miles from Columibia, Mo., to St. Louis? Extreme, isn't that? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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