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Is NASCAR's 'Superman' suddenly facing rivals with some Kryptonite?

  Is Denny Hamlin Dr. Kryptonite? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   Impishly late Saturday night, championship contender Clint Bowyer set the tone for next week's opening race of the NASCAR playoffs, with a playful jab at four-time champ Jimmie Johnson: "Superman hasn't lost his cape yet, but it's a little shorter this season."
    Whether Johnson, who ran strong in Saturday's Richmond 400 and finished third, is at all vulnerable in his bid over the next three months for an unprecedented fifth straight title, at least his rivals feel, for a change, they've got a legitimate chance.
   So how does Johnson see it, the head games perhaps:
   "People can draw conclusions however they want...and I've never been one to play into any of that stuff," Johnson insists. "I tried one time with Tony Stewart in 2005, and it backfired on me. Since then I've just let things take care of itself on the track.
    "If guys think we are vulnerable, it's my job to show up at Loudon, qualify on the pole and win the race.
    "I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are for the championship. I'm just concerned about going out and getting the damn job done. That's what I need to focus on.
    "With two good runs (Atlanta and Richmond) going into the chase, my guys are ready.
     "I'm ready.
     "We have got our mojo back."
     Still Johnson may not have that much of an edge, if any.
     And he's pinpointing Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick as the men he has to be most worried about.   
     "I think you've got five or six cars that can really race for the championship," Johnson says.
     "And we saw Greg Biffle (win) at Pocono....and Clint Bowyer and his team seem to be collecting a lot of points and running well.
     "I know Kurt Busch has it in him, and he's got some good tracks coming up."
     Jeff Burton, one of the 12 in the chase, says one key to this championship is to see which of the teams steps it up a notch in these next few races.
     Mike Ford, Hamlin's crew chief, says these next three races – at Loudon, N.H., Dover, Del., and Kansas City – really worry him.
     Particularly Loudon, Ford says, because Hamlin ran so poorly there in June.
     Johnson has set a torrid pace in these playoffs. And he senses it may be just as hot a pace this season for the man and team that wins. His own goal is to run top-three every week, ambitious to say the least.
     Johnson concedes he's had to fight through "some tough luck and poor races through the summer months."
     And he points to Hamlin – the preseason title favorite, in fact – as the early line pick, along with Harvick.
     "Harvick has been the surprise this year...and maybe I took for granted with how well Denny ran last year is that he would just be there," Johnson said.
    One of Saturday night's surprises was Carl Edwards, who started from the pole, ran strong early, then faded to 10th: "Tenth is really great for a bad night.
    "It is still a top-10, and we are in the chase. Now we need to go to Loudon and go for all the points we can get.
    "We ran better here tonight that we have run in years, so that is good for our team. It is huge."
     Teammate Greg Biffle had a really rough night, first his car filling with smoke, from a hole in the nose, then cutting a tire, then suffering a penalty on pit road. And he wasn't all that pleased afterwards, with his 32nd.
     "We knew we were going to qualify for the chase, but we felt we would run a little better than that,"  Biffle griped. "That was pretty poor.
      "Our cars keep breaking, and we seem to have stuff wrong with them.
       "I thought a few weeks ago we had a shot at the chase, but I don't know anymore."
     On the other hand, third title contending teammate Matt Kenseth, though finishing only 14th, ran very strong all night. "I am a little disappointed how we ended up. We ran better, and qualified really well, and ran really competitive for two-thirds of the race.
     "The last part we didn't run well."
      And Kenseth, like many in the playoffs, isn't quite sure what to expect in the chase: "Not to be a Debbie Downer but 12th in points isn't that spectacular.
      "We've been averaging about a 12th place finish each week, and that's not going to get it in the chase.
     "The saving grace is that everybody is caught up (points re-zeroed), and we are like (only) 50 points out of the lead."


    Celebration Station Saturday night in Richmond for Denny Hamlin, with win number six of the season, heading into the chase (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


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