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Is Jimmie Johnson's summer reign beginning?


Jimmie Johnson’s summer reign may be just beginning  
It was a bad, horrible and no-good storyline in the run up to last week’s Coca-Cola 600: a “struggling” Jimmie Johnson was winless and looked more average than a six-time champion really should in the season’s opening stint.

As Johnson tamped the conversation forcefully with his Sunday night win, he also may have initiated the story that will dominate NASCAR’s June stretch: the No. 48 taking the rest of the sport out behind the shed for a classic whooping.

The next two races — Dover this weekend and Pocono next — have routinely played host to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus putting on flag-to-flag clinics. At Dover, Johnson has eight career wins after taking checkered flags in five of his last 10 starts on the one-mile track. More impressive? Johnson has failed to lead fewer than 143 laps in one of those 10 starts.

At Pocono, Johnson has three career wins — it really should be four or five, save for flat tires that cost him races in 2012 and 2013 — and had the most dominant car there at both races a year ago.

For all of the hand wringing in recent weeks, Johnson may just be embarking on a complete flip of the narrative.

Tony Stewart back at site of last Sprint Cup win  
A lot around Tony Stewart has changed since his last trip to Sprint Cup Victory Lane. He’s got two new teammates, new metal pins in his leg, an active Twitter account and the beginnings of a Formula 1 team rising just beyond the front door of his co-owned Sprint Cup team.  

And after all that, he’s just eight races away from matching his career-long winless streak in the Sprint Cup Series. During some lean times at Joe Gibbs Racing in 2007 and ’08, Stewart waited 44 races between wins at NASCAR’s top level. With his most recent coming at Dover last June, Sunday marks his 37th start since that triumph.

It was a race that Stewart somewhat lucked in to. After a restart penalty dropped Jimmie Johnson out of a contention, Stewart passed Juan Pablo Montoya with three laps remaining to snare the win.

With the performance of Stewart-Haas Racing and his No. 14 season-to-date, a win doesn’t seem imminent. But it didn’t seem that way a year ago, either.

Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards enter interesting stretch
The rumors will only continue to perpetuate as Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards remain mum on their plans for 2015. Both Roush Fenway drivers are in the final years of their respective contracts at the Ford team, and both seem to be smartly fielding any and all options going forward.

A big reason for that, of course, has been a slow downward slide of RFR performance.

That uncertainty makes the new few weeks an interesting period for both drivers with typically Roush-friendly tracks on the docket. Between Dover and Michigan (the race that follows next week’s turn in Pocono), Roush-owned teams have scored 22 of the organization’s 134 total Cup series wins. A full 15 percent of RFR top-5 finishes in the team’s history have come at the two tracks.

The period could go a long way in helping Biffle and Edwards decide if a long-term future at RFR is the best case scenario, or if jumping ship — like former teammate Matt Kenseth did to Joe Gibbs Racing last season — is the better alternative.

Kurt Busch in danger of exiting top 30? Hardly.
With Kurt Busch’s expired engine in last Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 came the fifth DNF in 12 races for the 2004 champion. It was a continuation, really, of a largely disappointing season on the stock car front for the newest Stewart-Haas Racing driver. Aside from his Martinsville win — and isn’t that win looking quite important now? — Busch has just one finish better than 21st in 2014.

A season ago with Furniture Row Racing, Busch had seven finishes better than 23rd after 12 races.

The strange start to 2014 has landed Busch way back in the points – 28th to be exact – heading to Dover. Numerically, that puts him awful close to the 30th-place cutoff drivers must be above in order for regular season wins to count toward Chase eligibility. So Kurt is teetering on a dangerous edge, right?

Not exactly. To fall to 31st, Busch would have to cede 61 points Cole Whitt, or even more to David Gilliland, Alex Bowman, David Ragan or Reed Sorenson. Frankly, that’s just not happening.

The biggest issue with Busch’s miserable start is that he now has a very, very small cushion should something keep him from starting a few races. The possibility of that, however, diminished greatly when he emerged from his Indianapolis 500 experience without injury.

When do we get concerned about Ricky Stenhouse Jr.?
A two-time Nationwide Series champion, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. always seemed an obvious fit and strong candidate to take over a Sprint Cup seat for Roush Fenway Racing. But now he’s nearly one and a half seasons in to a full-time Cup career and the choice isn’t looking so strong based on mediocre results.

What should be made of it?

There are two roads to walk. First, Stenhouse could be the classic case of “too much, too soon” — not unlike the now front-running Joey Logano. In that theory, Stenhouse should be afforded more time — three to four seasons at Cup level — to get his bearings and show his worth.

The second thought is that Stenhouse’s credentials were overhyped based on internal and external competition. Externally, he was twice a champion in a Nationwide Series that featured regular winners who weren’t eligible for points. The second of those title-winning seasons did include an impressive six wins — but also came in a year where Kyle Busch raced his own equipment and could never win. Internally, his strongest opposition for the Cup ride in 2013 came from Trevor Bayne. Bayne’s talented, sure, but hasn’t proven to have the ability to consistently beat top Cup-level drivers.

Yes, it’s still early in Stenhouse’s career. He’s had just 53 total starts and only 48 as a full-time driver. But a slight regression in average finish year-to-year (Stenhouse finished 2013 at 18.9 and is at 22.5 after 12 races in 2014) plus a lead-lap finish pace nine marks under last year isn’t positive evidence of improved performance.

Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.