Friday April 30th, 2010

It has been the NASCAR story of the week: Jimmie vs. Jeff.

For two straight races, Jimmie Johnson has angered his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, who also happens to be a co-owner of Johnson's No. 48 Chevy. On April 19 at Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson aggressively raced Gordon in the latter half of the Samsung 500. The two even collided at about 170 mph as they navigated through a turn. When Gordon was told over the radio that Johnson, the four-time defending Cup champion, was upset with him, Gordon sniped, "Four-time's a little upset! He just wants to be treated different than everybody else."

The back-and-forth continued last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. As Gordon was making a bold run to the front of the field late in the race, Johnson cut in front of him, stopping his momentum -- an absolute no-no among teammates at a restrictor-plate track.

The two eventually wrecked in separate crashes, but as soon as Gordon climbed out of his No. 24 Chevy, his verbal grenades were thrown at one person: Johnson. "I was coming 10 mph faster than anybody, and the 48 is testing my patience," Gordon said. "It takes a lot to make me mad, and I am pissed right now."

So where does the Johnson-Gordon blowup go from here? Not far. This may be an irresistible storyline, but it's hard to imagine it will develop much further. Let's look at the facts: The two are friends -- very, very good friends, actually; the two know they would have to answer to their owner Rick Hendrick, the most powerful man in NASCAR, if one were to wreck the other; and the two are unquestionably the most media-savvy drivers in the sport. In other words, aside from a few heat-of-the moment comments made while the engines are still hot on Sunday, the grievances they have with each other will be made in private. Guaranteed. That's the "Hendrick way."

Is it possible that the two could tangle again on Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Speedway? Yes, but it seems highly unlikely. Given who's involved, this is a story that doesn't have legs.

But Gordon and Johnson both should challenge for the checkers at Richmond. They're among the five drivers to watch on Saturday night.

1. Jimmie Johnson. Richmond is one of Johnson's strongest tracks. In his last six starts here, JJ has had three wins. This is a relatively important race for Johnson. For the first time in a long time, the No. 48 team doesn't possess an air of invincibility. Yes, Johnson is leading the points and has more wins this season (three) than any other driver, but this team hasn't been the same since the spoiler replaced the rear wing on the stock cars at Martinsville in late March.

More significant, Gordon is far from the only driver who's recently been upset with Johnson's driving. All up and down pit road at Talladega late on Sunday you heard under-their-breath complaints that Johnson had been a wild man out on the track. This is completely out of character for JJ, and my hunch is that he'll author a clean race on Saturday night and rip off a top-five run to silence at least some of the criticism.

2. Jeff Gordon. One of the reasons Gordon and Johnson have been bumping and banging so much this season is because Gordon, for the first time in over two years, finally has a car that's capable of running nose-to-nose with the defending champ. In fact, I think right now there are only two drivers who have a legitimate chance to dethrone JJ this season: Gordon and Denny Hamlin (more on Hamlin in a moment).

In 34 career starts at Richmond -- almost a season's worth of races -- Gordon has only two career victories. His last win at RIR was in 2000, but he did finish third here last September and has wound up in the top-10 in each of the last seven starts. Given how well Gordon has been running recently, this streak should continue on Saturday.

3. Denny Hamlin. I hung out with Hamlin after his fourth-place finish on Sunday at Talladega for a piece that's in this week's issue of the magazine, and one thing really struck me: He's the man to beat in NASCAR right now. Since the spoiler was bolted onto the cars, Hamlin has scored more points than any other driver. And he's done this despite having reconstructive surgery on March 31 to repair a torn ACL in his left knee he suffered in a pickup basketball game in January.

A native of Chesterfield, Va., Hamlin will no doubt be fast at Richmond, which he considers his home track. He won here last September and on Saturday night he'll be driving a car that has reached Victory Lane three times in only four starts. He's my pick to take home the trophy.

4. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Junior is getting closer to ending his 65-race winless streak. He had the most dominant car in the field at Talladega, but he got caught up in traffic late and finished 13th. He should be in the mix at Richmond, where he has three career wins. This team just has the feel of one that's on the verge of a major breakthrough.

5. Kevin Harvick. Will he or won't he? That's the big question right now with Harvick, whose contract at Richard Childress Racing expires at season's end. Will he stay at RCR or will he move to, say, Stewart-Haas Racing and pilot a third car for what right now is a two-car team? Harvick isn't saying, but the informed guess here is that he'll land at SHR in 2011.

Harvick won at 'Dega on Sunday with a gutsy pass of Jamie McMurray about 500 yards before the finish line. Can he make it two in a row? Unlikely, but he has shown impressive flashes of speed at Richmond in the past. He won here in 2006 and in his last eight starts at Richmond he has seven top-10 finishes.

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