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Many questions as Michigan looms

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- So just what do we truly know with four races to go to set the field for the Chase?

With three wins apiece, it's easy to think of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Jimmie Johnson as the favorites when the new-look Chase for the Sprint Cup begins next month at Chicagoland Speedway.

But should we judge these drivers equally? Based on past performance, it's hard not to view Johnson and his six titles as the overwhelming favorite. Then again, Keselowski went toe-to-toe with Johnson in 2012 and didn't blink on the way to the championship.

And Earnhardt leads the series with the best average finish, which may or may not account for much once this new Chase begins.

Then there's Johnson himself. Is he simply experiencing his seemingly annual summer slump with the alarm set to go off the moment he takes to the track in Joliet? Until he falters in the Chase, it's hard to bet against Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus.

Then again, one of these years, history shows that it won't just be a slump, but the beginning of the end for the dynasty that has won six titles in just eight years.

Based on the past, it's a safe bet that Knaus is trying a few experimental setups and car builds to make sure no stone is unturned in building the best possible cars for the Chase. That Hendrick Motorsports has an abundance of horsepower isn't an issue -- so that's one variable the team doesn't have to worry about.

If anything, Johnson's biggest fear may be simply that his "lucky horseshoe days" have come to an end. Since he won here in June, he's led just seven laps in the last seven races; all of them at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen.

Many drivers go five races without leading a lap on an oval. None of them have six championships, however.

At Kentucky, Johnson was a nondescript 10th. He was swept up in the inevitable restrictor-plate crash at Daytona and then crashed twice early at Loudon with tire issues possibly brought on by gambling with low air pressures.

Searching for his fifth win at Indianapolis, Johnson was 14th and said the team tried an aerodynamic approach that didn't work. Another wreck left Johnson 39th at Pocono, and he was caught up in an accident at Watkins Glen that dropped him to 28th. If Johnson's worried, though, he's doing a good job of hiding it.

"I want to chuckle when you say, 'Make your own luck,' because some feel that I've just been lucky, period, and that I have a horseshoe somewhere that's just brought luck," Johnson said Friday. "But in most circumstances, you do make your own luck. Sometimes you're unlucky and somebody else's mistake catches you up, and I was a part of that last weekend on that restart at Watkins Glen. But some of the other stuff, we can probably trace it back and say it's self-inflicted.

"We're not trying to make excuses or asking for sympathy from anybody, but we can't ignore the results, and fortunately we're in the Chase Era, and we're sitting in a great position for the seeding process and hopefully [we'll] get another win or two and come in as the top seed. We're racing the points as they exist and how they are today. It's nice to have momentum entering the Chase. If it doesn't happen, we've won championships that way, too. So, we're taking it as it comes, but it has been a very challenging year."

In Johnson's summation, his car didn't have the speed needed to compete early in the year. With speed to spare, he quickly won three times in a four-race stretch and ripped off seven straight top-10s. Then, in his eyes, the luck left.

"So, we choose to look at it as we're getting all this out of the way so we can have 10 great races and hopefully it happens that way," he said.

If so, no one will remember this blip on the radar. But, at least for the moment, Johnson isn't the stalwart at Hendrick Motorsports.

That title goes to either Earnhardt or, quite possibly, Jeff Gordon, who may have won for the second time in three starts if he hadn't lost power while dominating the early stages at Watkins Glen. Gordon was second here in June and won the pole Friday with a blistering lap of 206.558 mph.

So, with two wins thus far, is Gordon the championship favorite? The one thing Gordon is sure of is that his team is hitting on all cylinders.

"Right now, we're in that position where we just continue to elevate the quality of the cars and keep trying to address issues that we had earlier in the season where we needed to qualify better and race better," Gordon said. "Just looking at the total team and how we're approaching each race and what we can do better.

"And as long as we keep bringing race cars like this, and they just continue to push hard at making them better each time we come back, and we see the results paying off, it just builds the confidence up in all of us in what we're doing. And you can go to the race track with confidence and fine-tuning instead of searching for big chunks here and there."

Confidence without a fast car is just false bravado; but at the moment, Gordon has it all working in his favor. Things are going so well that he figures last week's electrical issues will only make the team stronger while ensuring they don't happen during the Chase.

Another thing we know for sure is that things are happening very fast at Michigan International Speedway. Ryan Truex had little time to react when his car got away from him in practice Saturday morning and he slammed the wall.

Truex was diagnosed with a concussion and will be replaced Sunday by J. J. Yeley in the BK Racing entry.

Yet another apparent certainty is that Roush Fenway Racing has found speed in its Fords, at least at Michigan. Greg Biffle, a four-time winner here, hopes to parlay that speed into a win -- or at least a strong finish as he fights for a Chase berth.

Biffle is currently the first driver on the outside looking in as he trails Clint Bowyer by eight points for the last spot currently claimed by a winless driver.

Another certainty is that the Toyota teams don't have the speed they're searching for. And of the Toyota teams, the Michael Waltrip Racing tandem of Bowyer and Brian Vickers appears to be ahead of the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch.

Busch and Hamlin are the lone Toyota drivers to win thus far; though Kenseth and Bowyer are currently in the Chase field. Kenseth, though, knows speed is the key to returning to Victory Lane.

"We just, basically, haven't had quite enough speed," Kenseth said. "I felt we put ourselves in position to win a few times this year -- and just didn't have enough speed and strength to be able to get the win and be able to either hold them off or pass those last couple cars, or whatever the case may be.

"I feel like we've been solid this year. I feel like on average, our performance is getting better. We've had some troubles and dropped out of races. Things like that. But the races we have finished, we've usually been close to the top five. We just need to get running just a little bit faster to break through and hopefully get some wins."

Will that happen before the year is over?

That's among the many things it turns out we still don't know with four races left before the Chase.