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So, can anybody beat Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus? Better bring your A-plus game to Kansas

   Picturebook perfection? Well, anyone who expects to win this season's NASCAR championship will have to outwit wily Chad Knaus, the wizard behind Superman Jimmie Johnson (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   By Mike Mulhern

   DOVER, Del.
   Let the moaning and groaning begin. Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus are already off to the races, and just about everyone else in NASCAR's championship chase is playing catch-up.
   Only a late sprint by Mark Martin kept Johnson from snaking the Sprint Cup tour's points lead with Sunday's win in the Dover 400.
   In fact Martin may be the only man with the savvy and consistency and touch to hang with Johnson these next few weeks.
   Johnson, with a fourth at Loudon and a win here, is putting heavy pressure on his 11 title challengers.
   Yes, Juan Pablo Montoya has speed and momentum. But he's never been in this situation before…and Johnson has been in the heart of eight straight title races, winning three straight.
   Yes, Tony Stewart dominated the 'regular' season. But he's now had five consecutive bad races.
   Yes, Jeff Gordon should be hanging right in there, and he did have a good comeback Sunday. But in the first two chase races he's had pit road problems, not a good sign.
   Yes, Kurt Busch is tough, and crew chief Pat Tryson doesn't look like a lame duck. Still, that Tryson is leaving at the end of the season and the team is looking for a new crew chief can't be a plus.
   Not only are Johnson and Knaus opening tough, half the competition has already shot itself in the foot.
   Take Denny Hamlin. Talk about a deflating Sunday….
   "We're definitely disappointed…but we didn't crash," Hamlin said.  "We didn't have a 35th-place finish.
   "But we just didn't have a car that was capable of running with any speed all day.
    "We weren't really fast in qualifying, we weren't fast in the practices.  Our car just didn't have a whole lot of speed.
    "As soon as the green flag fell, I knew we were in trouble. 
     "It was just a bad day. 
     "The (new) tire was so loose that you had to overcompensate so much with the chassis that it just didn't make for good racing, at least from my standpoint."
    Of course Johnson would certainly disagree.
   But then Johnson did the tire test, along with AJ Almendinger (who also ran very well), and Montoya (who wound up fourth).

  Jeff Gordon needs to shape up his pit crew (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


And those who didn't test tires here, Hamlin and Greg Biffle in particular, complained that Goodyear picked Johnson for the August test.
    Can Hamlin run with the Hendrick guys from here on? "They're strong everywhere.  There's no weakness at all," Hamlin said with a sigh. "We've just got to get better on these types of tracks before we can contend."
    Meanwhile over in the Ford camp, again there was little to smile about. Carl Edwards charged late and pulled out an 11th. But he's certainly not looking like the same guy who won nine tour events last season and came close to the title.
    "The strategy worked out," Edwards said with a shrug. "That's the best possible finish we could have hoped for with this car.
     "I'm really proud of my guys on pit road. (Crew chief) Bob Osborne made good calls…but our mousetrap just wasn't good enough."
   On a day when teammate Matt Kenseth ran rather well?
   "Matt was good, so we'll go back and learn from that," Edwards said.
    Still this may have been the race that Edwards and Biffle needed to make happen, to turn things around. And they didn't get it done.
   "It's frustrating," Edwards conceded. "But not as bad as it could have been, you know?"
    Well, yes, he could have flipped like Joey Logano…a strange crash that may bear closer examination.
    Biffle, 13th, was dejected too: "It was a frustrating day.
    "What's probably most frustrating about the whole thing -- and I hate to beat a dead horse -- is that Juan Pablo and Jimmie, and I don't know who else, came up here and tire tested …and when we came back, look at the guys that didn't tire test: we ran terrible.
     "It was a completely different tire. It had us off our game right when we unloaded off the truck. We couldn't even make a lap on the track.
    "We got going there toward the end…but not like the guys that tested. That's the whole deal -- We had a decent car, but we're not going to beat guys that came here and tested."
   And Kenseth's take on it all?
    "It wasn't a big surprise to me that we missed the chase," Kenseth said. "I saw it coming for three months.
    "We haven't been performing. The whole company hasn't been performing the way it needs to to win a championship.
    "And that's not being negative or anything, it's just obvious. Everybody can see that.
     "So it shouldn't really be a surprise, you know, where they're at (Edwards and Biffle), considering the results we've had all year.
     "You don't just turn it around overnight.
    "Everybody at Roush Fenway is working really hard to get the cars better, to be competitive. We just got behind a little…and we're working hard to get that back.
    "So I'd like to say this is a step in the right direction. We had really good pit stops; our car was reasonable, though it wasn't blazing fast; and we were able to get a good finish.
   "Still, like Mark said, there are eight races left.  That's a ton of races, that's a lot of points to be made.
    "So anything can happen.
     "But just on speed, do I think one of our company cars can win?  No, I don't.
     "But anything can happen, and they might be able to get that fixed and get that turned around."


  Another frustration for Greg Biffle (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



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