After a weekend filled with verbal clashes that would have made
As the waters parted for the No. 48, his competitors learned a harsh lesson in how hard it's going to be to dethrone the reigning four-time champ. The way in which he went about his business leads off my Five Things from race No. 28 of 2010:
Driven, determined, dominant once up front. That was the No. 48 in a nutshell Sunday, never wavering on its goal of Chase recovery following a disastrous 25th-place debut at Loudon. While failed inspections, frayed tempers and fanatical media attention happened elsewhere, Johnson and company went through the weekend settling in and going about their business. Not once did he poke at the fiery controversy surrounding
"I hate that the No. 33 [and Bowyer] is in the position [they're in], but NASCAR has to be consistent with what they do. Zero tolerance is zero tolerance," he said. "There is no 'I'm sorry, you are close.' It is black or white. I've experienced it on my own as some other teams have, and now the No. 33 is going through it as well."
So well-trained is Johnson in public, never once did he flinch even when asked about the No. 48's own brush with inspection, a shock issue that caused the car to run through multiple times on Sunday before passing maximum height.
"Man, I don't know what goes on through tech, I didn't even know our car was in question or had to go through the sticks twice," he said. "But, I don't care. I just drive the car. Show up with my helmet and go."
That "eyes on the prize" mentality, keeping things in perspective meant the most on a weekend when
"We were watching because it was entertaining," joked Johnson of the Saturday incident that happened no more than 50 feet away from them. "But I haven't thought much about it. We've done a very good job over the last four years worrying about ourselves, and we've got to maintain that."
By the end of the race, that was clearly mission accomplished as Johnson was clearly the best car, winning the pole and taking control over most of the race's second half. With Johnson in second just 35 points behind Hamlin, it's clear that the guy who holds the throne is still the driver to beat.
"Every time they're faced with adversity, they come back and make a strong statement," said Hamlin. "We knew we were going to lose a little bit to him."
Did they lose enough? That'll be what the next eight races will likely be about, the Chase's top two contenders now situated 1-2 in the season standings and ready to go at it
At one point this weekend, it looked like an ailing Richard Childress Racing would get the last laugh over the 150-point penalty that knocked Bowyer from Chase contention. All three RCR cars were stout in final practice, and moved up quickly to assert themselves inside the top 20 by Lap 100.
But perhaps the biggest cracks in the armor came from one of Bowyer's teammates. One day after Harvick and Hamlin got into it, sideswiping on track then talking smack off it like a bunch of guests on
So that left Hamlin, fighting off reports crew chief
"Yeah, for sure this is the best position I've been in," he said after leaving with a 35-point lead. "Luckily, we had a good qualifying effort to keep that track position, otherwise we might have finished worse. I'm just not good at passing cars here, I don't work traffic well, I lose so much time around lapped cars. I don't really feel like I passed anybody for position all day."
It was almost a downer tone for Hamlin, but it's clearly a winner in which he and Joe Gibbs Racing also revealed a weakness in their biggest rival: pit road. He,
"I think everyone anticipates Jimmie is going to be strong here," Hamlin said, summarizing a mixed-message type of day. "So we knew we were going to lose a little bit to him, but we just tried to minimize that with the best finish possible, and I think we did a good job of executing our plan today."
Harvick and Bowyer just plain didn't execute, and now they're likely on the outside of the title Chase looking in.
That's the essence of the cool, fanatically fit Edwards, lifting up this Chase with nothing to lose after underperforming early in 2010. He's the king of the intermediate tracks, five of which lie ahead with him sitting sixth in points, just 73 behind Hamlin and with a tick more experience on the resume. Sure, the
Edwards, in contrast, was rated G on the radio Sunday, he and
"It was fun to lead," he said afterwards, up front for 100 more circuits on this day alone than during his previous 107-start, four-year Cup career. "No wonder Jimmie is smiling so much."
Just don't be fooled; A.J. and his No. 43 team had a smile just as wide, thanks to three straight top-12 finishes as he builds his case as a 2011 Chase contender.
"We're getting really good at fighting back and making good finishes out of a problem that happens," he said. "I would like to have a consistent race one of these days, but we've got fast race cars and we're getting there."
OK, so maybe it's a little weird to use that word with a 51-year-old who carries an AARP card along with his NASCAR license. But for a wily veteran suffering through his worst full-time season in seven years, confidence was the keyword for a Sunday drive in which Martin climbed up 30 spots, a valiant effort after failing post-race qualifying inspection -- interesting enough, for another Hendrick shock issue (over maximum pressure) which dropped him to the back of the pack.
"I could do 100 pushups right now," Martin joked after posting the third-fastest time on Friday, the best showing he'd had since Indy in July. That news conference was the most light-hearted, relaxed and refereshed he'd been all season, and you can only think that's something to build on over the remaining eight races, a stretch in which the Chase runner-up finisher excelled last year.