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Johnson, Kenseth established as favorites

Jeff Birchfield • Jul 9, 2013 at 8:28 PM

Halfway through this season, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth have been the dominant drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.Although the “Chase” can be a game-changer, Johnson and Kenseth have emerged as favorites for this year’s championship.Johnson is fresh off a fourth win of the season this past Saturday in the Coke Zero 400 where he became just the fourth driver to sweep races at Daytona during the season and the first since Bobby Allison in 1982. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet missed a couple of other opportunities to win this season, losing on late restarts at Dover and Kentucky.That Kentucky race was won by Kenseth, who matches Johnson with four wins this season. Three of those have come on the 1.5-mile tracks. That bodes well for the No. 20 Toyota driver since it’s the size of track which five of the 10 Chase races are held.If you look at the points halfway through the season, however, Kenseth is currently sixth. Johnson leads the points with Clint Bowyer, Carl Edwards, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr. rounding out the top five.Bowyer is coming off his best career year, second in the points last season, while Edwards is continuing a career trend of bouncing back from a bad year with a strong run the next season. Harvick has been the biggest surprise with this being his last season at Richard Childress Racing. He has wins at Richmond and Charlotte, and has a streak of eight straight top-10 finishes. Meanwhile, Earnhardt started off the season strong, but has cooled since. A third-place finish at Pocono is his only top-five over the past dozen races.Other than Johnson, none of the drivers ahead of Kenseth have been able to match his overall speed. As a whole, the Toyotas seem to be the fastest of the three manufacturers thus far, which bodes well for Bowyer and Kenseth.The other big news with the points is how three-time champion Tony Stewart has recovered from such a dismal start to the season. He was 20th in the points after Charlotte, but has since won at Dover and has four top-five finishes over the last six races.Some other big names continue to struggle.If the regular season ended today, defending champion Brad Keselowski, four-time champion Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin would all miss the Chase.The prospects still look OK for Keselowski and Gordon, but Hamlin needs a near-miracle in his injury-marred season if he’s to make the 10-race playoff.Hamlin is currently 26th in the standings, 122 points behind the 20th-place driver. Besides the daunting task of making up such a deficit, he has to hope the bonus for winning works out just to have a shot at the Chase.The good news for Hamlin is some of his best tracks are up next. The next three races are all on flat tracks, starting with the 1-miler at New Hampshire, followed by the 2.5-mile triangle at Pocono and the 2.5-mile rectangle at Indianapolis.It’s a stretch of races where some should climb, while others will likely encounter trouble. All in all, the second half of the season looks to be highly entertaining as teams have figured out so much on the Gen-6 race car and now are working more to fine-tune it.———On the local front, Muddy Creek Raceway will host the Kawasaki Tennessee State Championship this weekend.Friday is a practice day, followed by full two-moto races on Saturday. Sunday’s action includes an AMA Pro-Am point paying race which will count in the Thor Mega Series.Many of the motocross racers competed in the Hot Summer Series at the Appalachian Fairgrounds this past Saturday night.Young winners included Chandler Carver of Jonesborough in the 51cc/Shaft Stock, Will Andrews of Hampton in the 65cc, 7-9 year-olds and the 7-11 unlimited, and Brock Byrd of Unicoi in 65cc beginner.Elijah Buchanan of Roan Mountain was tops in the Collegeboy 14-24 class, and Jacob Austin of Jonesborough won the second moto to capture 250C honors.Keith Hensley of Johnson City won in the 40+ division, and Chris Furches of Jonesborough paced the ATV Youth division.———Elizabethton racers posted strong showings this past Saturday at the DER Bracket Series event at Bristol Dragway.Carl Widener drove his 1987 Buick Regal to the victory in the Sportsman division. He posted a .017 reaction time and was spot-on with a 11.556 elapsed time against a 11.63 dial-in. His winning pass was 113.36 mph.Candis Bise finished runner-up in the Trophy Division, taking a 1995 Chevrolet S-10 down the track in 16.673 seconds against a 16.60 dial-in.Taylor Gill continued a recent hot streak in Junior Dragster, Division 2, defeating Ben Denton of Bristol in the final when Denton red-lighted. The DER Bracket Series is off for the next several weeks before returning to action Sept. 13-15.Bristol Dragway will be busy this Friday through Sunday with the World Footbrake Challenge on tap.Other racing action in the area includes the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series and a special fireworks show at Kingsport Speedway on Friday night, and the “Southern National Series” Super Late Models at Volunteer Speedway scheduled for Tuesday, July 16. The Southern National Series features 10 special events across the Southeast in a span of 12 days, finishing on July 27 at Tazewell Speedway.

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