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Saturday, September 17, 2011
In battle of wits, better bet on JJ

By David Newton
ESPN.com

JOLIET, Ill. -- Bossman: "You thinking of writing about how Jimmie Johnson will win his sixth straight championship and how Kyle Busch will blow it for your Sunday column?"

Me: "Was considering how Johnson and the other Hendrick Motorsports drivers plan to spin out all they can for 10 races to keep Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the lead lap and in position for his first championship."

Bossman: "You think the other websites are onto that?"

Me: "Not sure. I've been typing in code to keep them off base."

Bossman: "Go to Channel 2."

Welcome to the start of the 2011 Chase.

Paul Menard and Kevin Harvick
If Paul Menard did anything to help Kevin Harvick win the race at Richmond last Saturday, NASCAR didn't find any evidence of it.

There's been as much or more focus on last week's Channel 2 drama at Richmond International Raceway the past few days than what will happen in Sunday's playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (2 p.m. ET on ESPN and WatchESPN).

We've heard more about the difference between analog and digital channels, and how drivers and crew chiefs aren't supposed to communicate on anything that isn't analog, than we've heard about the differences between five-time defending champion Johnson and Kurt Busch.

Even Earnhardt, NASCAR's most popular driver, has taken somewhat of a backseat to Jeff Gordon's intimation -- he called it "fishy" -- that Paul Menard switched to a secret channel before spinning out deliberately with 16 laps remaining to bring out the caution and give Richard Childress Racing teammate Kevin Harvick a chance to win.

And Harvick did win.

NASCAR announced on Saturday there is no evidence of wrongdoing on the part of RCR or Menard.

Even NASCAR president Mike Helton stopped by the media center to talk about this issue that has nothing to do with the Chase other than it possibly allowed Harvick to pick up the bonus points for an additional win and prevented Gordon from getting them.

"The only thing I'd ask everybody to cautiously go through is it's time to determine our 2011 champion," Helton said.

Helton wouldn't confirm whether there are secret channels, but it's no secret this will be the most wide-open Chase in the history of NASCAR's 10-race playoff.

At least seven drivers have a legitimate shot to win it all -- according to Tony Stewart, at least -- which is more than double the amount in the past.

"I think anyone in the Chase can win the championship," Carl Edwards said.

That may end some of the wrecking and feuding that made the first 26 races so exciting. Drivers know they can't afford to tick anybody off or take an unnecessary chance for fear of a poor finish that most agree will hurt them more under the new points system than it did under the old.

But perhaps it opens the door for more mind games like the one we saw last year when Harvick stirred the controversy pot between the teams of Johnson and Denny Hamlin over Johnson's pit crew change with Gordon.

Remember?

"Man, it looks like Mike Ford grew some b---- this week in the media center calling the 48 out … pretty cocky with two to go," Harvick wrote last year on Twitter, referring to comments Hamlin's crew chief made about Johnson's team panicking.

Perhaps Gordon simply was stirring the pot with his allegations against Menard, hoping to divert Harvick's attention from the Chase before it gets started.

Harvick did appear slightly disturbed during Friday's media session.

"I'm going to talk here, not you," Harvick said in his best Stewart imitation when a reporter interrupted his answer. "There's nothing that needs to be riled up or create a controversy."

Too late.

This already has escalated into whether team orders that are prevalent in other forms of motorsports can creep into stock car racing for the Chase. It probably won't happen. The spotlight is so focused on the possibility now that a team would be crazy to risk potential sanctions from NASCAR.

But the potential for team orders is stealing the spotlight. And it could lead to more problems if they really do become an issue.

"If NASCAR doesn't address it or look into it, then it could play out," Gordon said.

Kyle Busch, who enters the Chase tied with Harvick for the points lead based on four regular-season wins each, has thought enough about it to agree.

"Certainly, NASCAR needs to govern them and make it that way," he said. "It's not fair to the rest of the competition to play tricks like that."

If Menard was playing tricks, that is.

There's no smoking gun, only some radio transmission that can be interpreted several ways and insinuations that Channel 2 may have been code for Menard to spin out.

Channel 2 has become such a joke that those interested in hearing what will happen Sunday should turn there.

Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson
Teammates Jimmie Johnson, left, and Jeff Gordon have had their adventures in the last week, but both know how to win a title.

Unless you're Menard, who already is there.

Or maybe this really is just the start of mind games. If it is, look for Johnson to indeed win the title again.

"The 48 is perhaps the mentally strongest team there is out there," said Chase rookie Brad Keselowski, who comes to Chicago with more momentum than most.

Harvick's not bad at it, either.

And Keselowski is a fast learner, it appears.

"I'm playing one right now," he said. "Everyone is susceptible to something. They're all human. Jimmie Johnson I'm sure is human."

Hmm. Maybe.

Johnson did let Kurt Busch get under his skin last week to the point he retaliated late to an earlier incident with the Penske Racing driver. But even that feud has been overshadowed by MenardGate.

"I have no curiosity to see how [Johnson and Busch] plays out," Earnhardt said. "It bores the s--- out of me, to be honest. It's probably exciting to you guys, but I'm concerned about my championship run and what I can do to be as good as I need to be.

"I've got my own damn problems to worry about. Not very interesting. Sorry."

Earnhardt did seem interested in talking about MenardGate.

"I can't say that I've ever done anything compared to what Jeff was insinuating in his comments," he said. "But I've tried to help myself out by bringing out a caution, so maybe that is about the same thing, I guess."

Earnhardt laughed, recalling the time he spun himself out at Bristol Motor Speedway to bring out a caution then bragged about it on his radio for everyone to hear.

"I got in trouble," Earnhardt said. "If you do anything like that, you just can't admit it."

You also, apparently, can't admit that Johnson should be the favorite to win the Chase. It seems almost everybody that comes through points to Gordon or Kyle Busch, despite numbers that point heavily toward the defending champion.

Or maybe it's just wishful thinking.

"It would be nice to have Jimmie sitting in the crowd while I was giving my [championship] speech," Edwards said. "We have all had to listen to his speeches for a long time."

Yes, this Chase is off to an interesting start -- if you're tuned into the right channel.

Me: "Back to Channel 1, bossman."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.