Tom Bowles
Monday March 22nd, 2010

BRISTOL -- The NCAA tournament has had its share of Cinderella stories, but on a dreary day in Thunder Valley, their were no fairy tales to be found. Jimmie Johnson's 50th victory -- which tied him for 10th all-time with Ned Jarrett and Junior Johnson -- also came with a dubious ending of a streak that shows the need for new faces. Bristol's string of 55 straight sellouts is over, with the 138,000 fans falling 20,000 short of capacity. It is a clear statement that the economy is not the only reason for a startling decline in attendance.

Here are five things we learned at Bristol:

1) Jimmie Johnson is a "man on a mission."

There are few weaknesses for the reigning four-time champ, but Bristol has been a sore spot on his resume for years. Winless in 16 career starts entering Sunday, Johnson had more runs of 30th or worse (four) than top 5 finishes. More often than not, the track provided embarrassing moments that would be a blip on the radar screen of a championship season.

"It's been a real downer for me to walk through the gates, look around, and think,'Man, I'm going to suck today, wreck in lap five,'" Johnson said. "I really had that mindset coming here."

So the team worked hard on changing it. Last year, he led 195 laps in two races while coming home eighth and third, putting him on the verge of a breakthrough. So it's no surprise to hear conquering Bristol was high on his list of priorities for 2010. Johnson led 84 laps, but still needed a boost late after chasing Kurt Busch most of the day. When a debris caution flew with less than 15 laps left, both got put in traffic when taking four tires on their final stop. At Bristol, that's the type of scenario that would have doomed Johnson in the past, but No. 48 sliced through drivers who had gambled on two en route to an easy trip to Victory Lane.

"For him to say that he wanted to focus on that and get better at this racetrack, for us to be able to go out there and do what we did speaks volumes about the dedication and desire he's got inside," crew chief Chad Knaus said.

It also beats his opponents into submission. After winning three of five races this season, Johnson has now won seven of the last 14, a NASCAR-best since Jeff Gordon won seven of nine in the summer of 1998. For a team that tends to save its best for last, the King of the Chase seems to have a new strategy for 2010: throw a flurry of early punches so that come playoff time, no one even thinks they stand a chance.

"I get caught up in mind game(s) and find a lot of satisfaction in it," he said. "I told Chad before the year was over, I don't have a number of wins (in mind), but I wanted to win a lot to frustrate the competitors. I think over the last few years, we've been able to get in some guys' heads and it's been helpful. I don't want to lose that advantage if we can prevent it."

That's bad news for Johnson detractors, with fans and rivals alike hoping for a breakthrough sometime soon.

"I hope it frustrates (the other drivers)," Knaus said. "That's only momentum for us."

2) There were no fireworks between Carl Edwards and Brad Keselowski fireworks on Sunday ... or anybody else.

Any hope of a continued Carl-Brad feud ended Saturday, when the two met with NASCAR officials. By all accounts it went well, with both drivers getting a good understanding of each other and pledging to simply move on. Both raced each other hard but clean in both the Nationwide and Cup races, with Keselowski emerging from both without a scratch.

That reality likely disappointed fans at a track where bumping and banging was the norm. Bristol's second groove has made it more like a mini-intermediate where lapped cars get out of the way and drivers give each other room. Mark Martin and Greg Biffle produced the day's only ugly wreck.

3) Kurt Busch's gain is Joe Gibbs Racing's loss.

Crew chief Steve Addington has rebounded nicely from his November dismissal from Joe Gibbs Racing. Running first and second the last two races with new driver Kurt Busch, he's asserted himself as a leader while the duo claims their place as title contenders. And after a rocky first three races for Penske's three-car team, it was Addington who rallied the troops and put even Keselowski and Sam Hornish, Jr.'s programs on better footing.

Compare that with Joe Gibbs Racing, which struggled with a faulty Goodyear tire more than anyone else. Pole sitter Joey Logano was the first to falter, but at least he didn't hit the wall. Teammates Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were not so lucky, with flats sending them straight into the outside wall and making their cars the type of pancakes you don't ever want to see.

Busch's crew chief Dave Rogers wasn't sure what the problem was on Sunday.

"It could be setup, could be tire, could be track," he said. "We'll look at everything."

That confusion is not where a championship-contending program should be. Kyle Busch made a startling recovery to ninth, but it's still a far cry from the 378 laps he led on the way to that dominating Bristol win last spring with Addington as his crew chief. Now 10th in points, teammates Logano and Hamlin are 17th and 19th with just three top 10 finishes in 15 attempts. And Hamlin, the trendy preseason title favorite, has yet to finish inside the top 15.

4) Roush Fenway Racing has returned as a force on the Sprint Cup circuit.

Last season, short tracks were the source of RFR's undoing. Thirty starts produced just one top-five finish, and superstars Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards never as much as sniffed the top 10.

That changed in a hurry Sunday with the Blue Ovals asserting themselves in a big way. Biffle contended throughout, while Kenseth and Edwards worked hard to hang inside the top 10. All three took two tires under the race's final caution, a gamble that left them 1-2-3 for the restart and track position to finish the race fourth, fifth, and sixth respectively.

"So far this year, we've been able to find ways to get good finishes even when we haven't performed," said Kenseth, who took over the point lead from Kevin Harvick. "We made some good adjustments [today], had great pit stops, and came up with a good result."

Kenseth and Biffle remain the only two drivers to go 5-for-5 in top 10s this season. Add in Edwards' solid performance, and this team looks to be in perfect position to capitalize on the spoiler's debut next week. David Ragan looks to be the only driver still behind the curve heading to Martinsville and beyond.

5) Sometimes, you need a little extra motivation.

Sports demand a balance of mental and physical strength -- something Jamie McMurray and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. proved in different ways on Sunday.

For McMurray, it was blocking out an awful sickness in fighting his way to a solid top 10 finish. Fighting the flu all weekend, things got worse right after the drop of the green. By lap 60, he felt like he was going to throw up, and some wondered if he'd even finish the race.

McMurray said he did not take any medicine for his nausea.

"I didn't think they'd be able to give me anything to fix it, and I wasn't going to mess a pit stop up for a Tums," McMurray said.

But all joking aside, McMurray found the best way to feel better was to run harder. By Lap 300, he was running fifth and got as high as third before slipping to eighth at the finish. It's the best run by far since his Daytona 500 victory, stopping the bleeding of a month-long slump in which he even wrecked his own teammate.

As for Earnhardt, he seemed ready to run over crew chief Lance McGrew after a pit road speeding penalty put him at the tail end of the lead lap. The speeding penalty threatened to halt Earnhardt's season momentum, leaving McGrew to give his driver a push.

"Don't [expletive] lay down on me, bud," he said. "Keep digging."

Earnhardt's reaction?

"I don't EVER [expletive] lay down. Don't say that ever again on the radio. Don't need the whole world hearing that."

But what the whole world saw afterwards was Junior driving like a man possessed, fighting from outside the top 20 to finish seventh. That's good enough to leave him eighth in points, ahead of teammates Mark Martin and Gordon with all his favorite tracks next up on the schedule. NASCAR's Most Popular Driver a weekly threat? We're one more good finish away from assigning him that label.

Underdog Shoutout of the Week: It wasn't pretty, but former champ Bobby Labonte put in another solid run for the No. 71 team of TRG Motorsports. And after coming home 21st, the last car on the lead lap, he accomplished a far more important goal: locking the team inside the top 35 in owner points. Now, for the first time since last year at Martinsville, the team doesn't have to worry about qualifying on speed, a step in the right direction for one of NASCAR's few single-car teams.

Race Grade: B-. Yes, there was plenty of side-by-side racing, with the most lead changes (29) since 1991. But when I think Bristol, I think sparks flying, bump 'n' runs, and post-race fireworks we can't see anywhere else. It's a departure from the norm of intermediate track racing ... and instead, what we got was a baby Atlanta with the pre-emptive favorite on top.

What a tough way to wind up a two week-stint filled with momentum. The last thing NASCAR needed during an NCAA tournament packed with Cinderella stories was to come to a "fan favorite" track and generate none of their own.

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