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Jimmie Johnson could be 5-for-7 coming into Texas, so his title rivals better step it up

   The men atop the NASCAR standings: leader Jimmie Johnson (R) and the Jack Roush drivers chasing him, Matt Kenseth (C) and Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

    By Mike Mulhern

    Now the last time out here, at Bruton Smith's track on the north Texas plains, things didn't go too well for Jimmie Johnson.
    He arrived with a whopping 184-point lead in the championship chase, with just three races left in the season....but he got crashed out in the opening laps and lost a ton of points, more than 100, in what could have been a damaging blow to his title chances. (Actually, under the traditional NASCAR points system Tony Stewart would have left Texas that evening with the tour lead, but that's another story.)
     This time around Johnson again hits cow town with the Sprint Cup lead, and he's hot, three wins in the first seven races, and with just a couple more laps he could have won Saturday night's Phoenix 600.
     The mid-size track program appears going quite well for Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, too, with wins at California and Vegas already.
     Last fall here the battle was Kyle Busch versus brother Kurt, and when Kyle ran short of gas at the end, his older brother pulled off the win. But of course Johnson wasn't around to contend.
    The last few tour events have come down to late-race cautions, and crew chiefs having to decide how to gamble – stay on the track and gain position, or pit and get fresh rubber, and two tires or four.
   Four tires late won for Johnson at Bristol (those double-file restarts are worth the price of admission this spring), and four tires late won for Denny Hamlin at Martinsville, if just barely.
   But it was Ryan Newman versus Jeff Gordon at the finish at Phoenix after both took only two.
   Texas Motor Speedway, however, probably will present different challenges, long greens.
   Making the late race tire call isn't easy, Johnson says, so he typically defers to Knaus. "Chad asked me at Bristol what I wanted to do, and I told him 'Not my job, man.' He's got the big house on the hill, so I let him make those calls," Johnson had said just before the race.
   After the 600, though, Johnson was second-guessing his own four-tire call, and overruling Knaus: "Phoenix was one of very few times where I've called for four tires," Johnson said. "I just felt we had been out there on the tires for so long that four tires would make a huge difference. 
    "Everything worked out and I got to third (after restarting seventh in the overtime shootout).  If I had one more caution, I really think we would have had a shot at it."
   However Johnson conceded "I should have listened to Chad and taken two tires; I think we had Jeff and Ryan beat (head to head if all three had been on just two fresh tires)."
    One story line this spring has been NASCAR's switch back to the old flat-blade rear spoiler. So far it hasn't made much difference at all.
    But this is a 190 mph track, and downforce and car balance is very important.
    Plus, the new 'old' spoiler may move the air around the rear of the car quite differently, forcing drivers to adjust their passing strategies.
    "We'll learn more this weekend...but we won a couple championships and a bunch of races with the old car and that spoiler...so I don't see it being a big deal," Johnson said.
    The tires, though, may again be a significant factor. Drivers have been quite aggressive this spring, for some reason, and three-wide at Phoenix was something to behold.
    Johnson's wheelmanship in some of those late-race three-wide situations has been fun to watch. He says he's more confident in those situations with four new tires, in case he has to lean hard on someone: "The old saying is eight tires are better than four...and (at Phoenix late) I was thinking that 12 tires were better than four. 
    "I knew if I had to lean on some guys, it wasn't really going to mess me up all that bad."
    Phoenix was a bad stop for some of the tour's top drivers, who were expected to be in the fight, like Jeff Burton and Greg Biffle. Will Texas be the Rebound 500 for those guys?
    Or have Johnson and Gordon now really caught their stride?
     "When you're winning, it's easy to carry momentum and have teams think about you," Johnson says of the head games. 
     "Martinsville (where Johnson went in as heavy favorite but never contended) didn't go as we hoped. So I think we lost maybe a little momentum there.
   "But then we went to Phoenix and ran really well, led a bunch...so I think we're top-of-the-mind to everyone once again. 
     "The fact we're leading the points keeps us at the forefront of everyone's minds as well.
     "It works...but it's early in the season to be too concerned with those sorts of things. Still, we'll take whatever advantages."
     So far this spring the points thing has been a roller coast, something of a surprise.
     In fact Johnson says he's been "a little shocked" at the way some teams are going in the points.
    "Over the next month or so, things will stabilize," Johnson predicts, looking at the Texas-Talladega-Richmond-Darlington-Dover stretch heading into the All-star break. 
    "There are some guys further down than we'd expect, with some bad luck. I think it's going to be pretty stable from here on into the chase. 
    "I don't know if the spoiler is really going to pose that big of an issue and really mix things up all that much."
   Which certainly doesn't bode well for his title rivals. 
    Johnson's three-for-seven could easily be five-for-seven: "Martinsville, we missed an opportunity there.
    "We had one kind of get away from us at Phoenix.
   "And there are good tracks coming up for us -- I feel we've been able to raise the bottom line at a lot of tracks we needed to...tracks where we've struggled, like Indy and Bristol."
    Which means Johnson's rivals need to make something happen big here this weekend...
  And that could be Kyle Busch, who had Texas won last fall, until running out of gas in the final miles.
  Busch had Phoenix in the bag too Saturday night, until that late race caution.
  But will it be Good Kyle or Bad Kyle that shows up here? Busch may be afire out on the track, after a slow start to the season with crew chief Dave Rogers, but he was a no-show post-race when pressed for comment on the race.
   And Fox TV men are getting heat for poor post-race coverage of both Busch and ailing Denny Hamlin.


   So how did NASCAR's TV game fare Saturday night at Phoenix? Up slightly in the nation's top 56 markets, and that's good. Fox' coverage of the 600 pulled a 3.4 rating, compared to 2009's 3.3 (when the event was shorter). In fact Atlanta and Bristol ratings were also up slightly, after Daytona's pothole controversy and the Winter Olympics. (Martinsville was rain-delayed until Monday.)
   ESPN2's Friday night Nationwide coverage pulled a 1.0 rating, the same as 2009 and 2008; that translates to about 1.2 million viewers.

   Jack Roush is giving crew chief Mike Kelley the Ricky Stenhouse Nationwide team to run, beginning this week for the Texas race, and Ben Leslie, who has been Stenhouse's crew chief, is moving to the job of director of competition for Roush's four Nationwide teams, in a job swap.
    Kelley, a Roush veteran since 2002, has been Nationwide crew chief for Carl Edwards and David Ragan.
    Stenhouse, one of the newcomers to Roush's driver roster, concedes "The first five races were pretty rough....we had a good run at Phoenix, ninth.
    "But I'm still new here, so I put my faith in Jack when it comes to these decisions. Jack has made changes like this before and has had a lot of success, so I have no reason to doubt him."
    Roush opened the season with the surprise move on the Cup side putting Todd Parrott in charge of Matt Kenseth's team, a move which has paid off quite well – Kenseth is sitting second in the Sprint Cup standings.
   Kelley, who has been the competition director, says he'll be glad to get back in the fray: "I missed working on top of the box with a single group of guys.  The other role is very important, and I enjoyed it, but I missed the camaraderie of working with one group of guys. 
    "It's a whole fresh start for me now.  When I went from David to Carl, I had my guys with me, and it was a comfortable feeling. But now I'm starting with a bunch of new guys and a new driver and some different cars. But I think we have a lot of potential."

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  Kyle Busch, here celebrating Friday's Nationwide win at Phoenix, in an amazing comeback charge, is drawing boos for blowing off TV after losing Saturday's 600, in a wild finish. And Fox TV is drawing boos too for not doing a better job post-race. Of course the 600 ran nearly four hours, until; 11:38 p.m. EDT.....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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