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NASCAR reverts to child's play, but Jimmie Johnson is all business

So, what's next in NASCAR? Eye-gouging? Slap-fighting? Wedgies?

"Baby punches,'' name-calling and hair-pulling have become the rage in the manly sport of stock car racing. It's enough to make one wonder if "Boys, have at it'' has become "boys -- with a little 'b' -- have at it"?

All this Romper Room roughhousing overshadows what's happening on the track. Brad Keselowski scored his third consecutive top-three finish with a broken ankle Sunday at Michigan. Kyle Busch won his series-high fourth race of the year and clinched a Chase spot. And, maybe most important, Jimmie Johnson's team showed a resurgence a month after he publicly challenged the group.

Although everyone walked away without incident at Michigan, that hasn't been the case lately in NASCAR races.

On Saturday, in Montreal, crew chief Jerry Baxter, upset that his driver, Patrick Carpentier, spun after contact with Steve Wallace, sought retribution. As Wallace sat in his car after the race, Baxter reached in and with the fury of a distraught hairstylist tried to give Wallace a ponytail. Wallace later said: "Only girls pull hair."

That came a week after Greg Biffle threw what Boris Said said were "baby punches'' at him as he sat in his car after the Watkins Glen Cup race. Said exited his car and charged like a bull. Biffle's crew encircled its driver, providing greater protection than Tom Brady receives on a typical Sunday.

Even Johnson, the five-time defending champ, verbally sparred with Kurt Busch after feeling Busch bullied him on the last lap at Pocono earlier this month. They traded barbs on pit road and then Johnson all but questioned Busch's manhood a week later, saying that as that crowd started to build around them on pit road, "that guy, all of a sudden, gets brave.''

Busch responded by saying: "I'm in his head.''

Johnson has been in many competitors' heads the last few years, building a legacy of championships that will require a special wing in NASCAR's Hall of Fame some day.

Unlike years past when Johnson has been so dominant that he could shake off anything a competitor said or tried, Johnson has had to be more aggressive and defensive this year. Think Rex Ryan in a firesuit. Thus, the incident at Pocono and the subsequent comments about Kurt Busch were more about Johnson protecting his turf than playing head games.

Johnson's team was down last year and had it not been for the pit crew change and misfortune to Denny Hamlin, Johnson's title streak might have ended at four.

Even this year, Johnson has not been as dominant, with his lone victory coming at Talladega in April. Kyle Busch has been the sport's dominant driver this year, leading more laps than any driver this season and winning more races.

As Busch has excelled, Johnson has had his ups and downs. It was just a month ago that Johnson sat on the pit wall at New Hampshire after a hell-bent charge from deep in the pack to fifth, questioning and challenging his team, especially the pit crew.

"When it's key times for stops, we have mistakes,'' Johnson said then. "I've been real patient all year trying to build. I'm running out of patience. I care for these guys deeply for going over the wall, and I know they're very talented guys, but we're getting into my livelihood in a little bit when we get into this Chase and we've got to be right.''

Since making those comments, Johnson has three top-10 finishes in four races.

Sunday showed the capabilities of the team. Johnson started slowly, describing the car's handling as "spooky'' with the way it changed from corner to corner. Crew chief Chad Knaus made various changes under caution that put Johnson back in the pack. In the day's most impressive drive, Johnson went from 32nd on lap 32 to 18th by lap 50. He was in the top 10 before lap 70. Michigan's wide track made it easier to move up but the charge was still noteworthy considering drivers have said how hard it can be to pass there.

Johnson's pit crew also was solid, efficiently servicing him on one stop where he had to park at an angle because of pit road traffic around him. Johnson stayed near the front the rest of the day and then found himself near the lead when fortune returned. He was on pit road as the caution came out, allowing him to take the lead when others made their pit stops. Johnson held the lead until Kyle Busch took it away 16 laps from the finish. A second-place finish on a high-horsepower track is a good sign with so many similar tracks in the 10-race Chase.

"It's a step in the right direction,'' Johnson said afterward. "I look at some intermediate tracks. We've been very competitive. I look at Kentucky, here [Michigan] falls into that category, then I think of Kansas from a negative standpoint because we were just terrible there.

"It's kind of inconsistent. We're still working hard to build that consistency into the car. But every good race, it just kind of builds a direction and helps us reinforce the areas we're working in. We certainly need to do better on the mile-and-a-half's. That's been our bread and butter over the years. With the Chase being so heavily weighted in those races, we need to be competitive there. ''

Johnson knows it will take more than being good on the intermediate tracks in the Chase. The challenge is about to begin for him and the other title contenders.

"My experience, the championships, especially with the Chase format being so short with 10 races, you are going to be tested in all areas,'' he said. "We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths.

"Really the bottom line is being strong or adequate in your weakest areas, raising that part up so your average is high enough to perform. We will all learn in time who that guy is this year. We've been it the last five. Doesn't mean this year is our year. We've got to go out and earn it, or whoever else will be the champion.''

Before they get to that moment in Homestead where a driver raises the championship trophy, 13 races remain, beginning with this weekend's event at Bristol.

The track, once known for the temper tantrums spurred by the one-lane oval, has been relatively tame since it was redone, allowing cars to run two- and three-wide instead of bumping each other out of the way to get by. With the wild card placing an emphasis on winning, there's anticipation among fans that Saturday night's race will return to what they consider the good old days.

You know, back when driver were so upset they did things out of character, such as Johnson's one-finger salute to Robby Gordon after crashing, and the time Dale Jarrett retaliated by wrecking Ryan Newman for an earlier incident, or that time Ward Burton threw his heal guards at Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s car as he drove by after an incident.

Back before all the name-calling, hair-pulling and "baby punches'' in the sport today.

Dustin Long covers NASCAR for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va., The Roanoke (Va.) Times and the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. His blog can be found here.

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