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Hamlin needs top finishes as Johnson gets back on track

NASCAR Power Rankings

Halfway through one of the most tumultuous Sprint Cup seasons in recent memory, there remains one constant: everything is in flux. Four-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson is again a contender, but a squadron of other drivers have, at times, looked just as good or better. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is at times better, sometimes not. Ford didn't need a government bailout, but needs a lifeline, competitively speaking. A still balky economy continues to eat away at the fan base and impact attendance, causing the sport to rethink the way it competes. There is anticipation, but there is also an ill-at-ease feeling about it all. And it's only halfway done. Here are 10 threads likely to weave through the final 18 races of the Sprint Cup season. Have a comment? Send to siwriters@simail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter at twitter.com/brantjames

1Jimmie Johnson's quest for (even more) history
Jimmie Johnson's quest for (even more) history
The four-time defending series champion began the season by winning three of the first five races, but plateaued when the series replaced the wing on the rear deck of the cars with spoilers at Martinsville. Johnson took 10 weeks to regain his form, winning consecutively at Sonoma, Calif., and Loudon, N.H., and tempering what was becoming a Denny Hamlin exhibition in Victory Lane. Now Johnson seems much more poised to take a fifth-straight title. Perhaps he had been all along. He hardly seemed to be panicking, but admitted things weren't running as well as usual. The second half of this campaign gets trickier, not just because of the racing -- he's mastered that aspect -- but because of some life-changing events on the horizon. His daughter is due to be born during the off-week after this weekend's event at Chicago, which could present unforeseen distractions for Johnson.
 
2Kevin Harvick's resolve
Kevin Harvick's resolve
The guy is not going away. With a victory in the Coke Zero 400 on Saturday, Harvick won for the second time this season and held onto the points lead for the 13th week. Now tied for second in victories and in a position to gamble (said crew chief Gil Martin), Harvick continues not only a remarkable one-year turnaround -- from 26th in points this time last season -- but a formidable development into a championship contender.
 
3Denny Hamlin's second wind
Denny Hamlin's second wind
Five wins in 10 weeks put the 29-year-old squarely in the title discussion this spring, but he has waned. His most recent win at Michigan was followed with a 34th-place result at Sonoma and 24th at Daytona. His five victories will move him to or near the top when the Chase begins, but at fifth in points, he's in need of another spurt. Perhaps worrisome is the fact that he's only finished inside the top-10 twice this season in races he hasn't won.
 
4Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s legacy
Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s legacy
The man is 35 years old and under immense scrutiny when he does not win -- which he hasn't done with any regularity in seven seasons -- and even more when he does. So poor have been some of his recent seasons and so recalibrated the expectations that his modest run of solid results the past month, and a slow creep toward a Chase berth have been reason for major optimism. And with one well-intentioned swoop he and his career were swamped by the legend of his late father and namesake again on Friday. Earnhardt Jr. seemed almost uncomfortable driving the No. 3, Wrangler-adorned co-entry by his team and Richard Childress Racing in the Nationwide Series race, asserting it would be his final time driving such a car. Then he went out and won the race, unleashing a torrent of memories and emotions that he almost seemed uncomfortable handling publicly. His halting of a winless streak stretching to mid-2008 in the Cup series was underscored by his famous father and all he accomplished: 76 victories and seven championships, two of them by the time he was his son's age. Though being the offspring of the legend has inherent advantages, there are encumbrances. This looked like one of them.
 
5Ford's reputation
Ford's reputation
It's been 21 races since the manufacturer's last victory, and that driver won the Daytona 500 in a Chevrolet to begin 2010. The source of much of Ford's problems has been its hub team, Roush Fenway Racing, and its inability to regain the footing that made it one of the sport's top organizations just a few years ago. Though three Roush drivers -- led by Matt Kenseth in seventh -- are within the 12-driver Chase boundary and Kasey Kahne finished second at Daytona, wins still matter.
 
6Kasey Kahne's future
Kasey Kahne's future
Mark Martin continues to effusively declare his future presence in Hendrick Motorsports' No. 5 Chevrolet next season. Thereafter, it's contractually Kahne's. So what becomes of the lame duck Kahne, who is riding out another morose season at Richard Petty Motorsports? Owner Rick Hendrick says he doesn't know yet. Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon certainly aren't going anywhere. Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s performance the last month -- he's 11th in points now -- and star power would make him unlikely to be jettisoned, though Hendrick did as much with a statistically better driver in Kyle Busch to make room for Earnhardt Jr..
 
7Chase for the Championship tweaks
Chase for the Championship tweaks
NASCAR chairman Brian France expressed a desire to create "impact moments" in the Sprint Cup playoffs, suggesting another set of adjustments may be forthcoming for the system used to determine a season champion. Previous dictates of making consistency and victories matter have led to an expansion of the field from 10 to 12 drivers and a reseeding before the 10-race playoff based on bonus points from victories. "Eliminations" have been discussed in an effort to defibrillate a fan base that has not had the cash to spend at mid-1980s or 90s levels despite all the "havin'-at-it." Here's a thought: only the top five drivers in points or any with a victory in the first five Chase races are eligible to compete for the title in the last five.
 
8Schedule realignment
Schedule realignment
According to NASCAR, both International Speedway Corp., and Speedway Motorsports Inc., the companies that control the vast majority of the Sprint Cup dates, have requested changes to their 2011 schedules. Kansas, long the pet project of ISC chairman Lesa France Kennedy, would seem extremely likely to gain a second date, perhaps one from failed former pet project Fontana, Calif. New Hampshire or Atlanta could lose a date to benefit SMI's Kentucky and/or Las Vegas, which would make an outstanding season-ending venue and site for one swinging victory celebration. That, of course, would be a crushing blow to Homestead-Miami Speedway, which has centered most of its publicity campaign around hosting season-enders in the top three NASCAR series (with sponsorship from Ford), Grand Am and the IZOD IndyCar Series. Comfortable November weather makes the track an attractive venue, but the market has been, at best, lukewarm despite aggressive marketing because of its fickle fan base and the track's distance from posh Miami. Homestead will lose its spot as the final stop on the IndyCar circuit next season, according to CEO Randy Bernard.
 
9Danica Patrick's learning curve
Danica Patrick's learning curve
The IndyCar car star has just four Nationwide Series starts -- finishing a season-best 30th at New Hampshire -- and another year of contractually obligated tutelage before she figures to make the most important and lucrative decision of her racing career: remain in open wheel or attempt to jump to Sprint Cup. Anticipation of and speculation over an eventual first Sprint Cup start will build as the summer slogs into winter and the IndyCar season. Seven Sprint Cup weekends will remain once she concludes her IndyCar season on Oct. 2 at Homestead. She has driven a Nationwide or Indy car on four of those circuits and one of those she has not -- Charlotte Motor Speedway -- would provide a fine setting for a Sprint Cup debut in the heart of the industry. Former track president "Humpy" Wheeler, who whipped the town into a ticket-buying lather over Janet Guthrie's Cup debut there in 1976 should be brought out of retirement to promote this one ... if it happened. And it's kind of a good idea.
 
10Pony cars
Pony cars
The Mustangs and Challengers that Ford and Dodge, respectively, introduced into the Nationwide Series at Daytona were well-received and actually suggested a visual connection with their street rod cousins. With "relevance" an important concept to manufacturers that invest millions in NASCAR participation, re-establishing such a romantic connection with the sterile Cup car could become a priority.
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