JJ, Edwards trying to find a groove
HAMPTON, Ga. -- They were the duelists for last year's Sprint Cup, and all winter they were neck-and-neck in preseason prognostication of favorites to win this year's championship.
Johnson, seeking an unprecedented fourth straight NASCAR season title, is 19th in points going into the fourth race of the season, Sunday's Kobalt Tools 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Edwards, a consensus pick to break Johnson's string of championships, is ninth, and disappointed in his start.
"Yeah, but not in light of any of the predictions," Edwards said, waving an admonishing finger to sweep away any notion that he counts on those. "In general."
For example, "I would have loved to have not blown an engine up last week [with only a lap and a half to go at Las Vegas]," he said.
As for his rival Johnson, "Jimmie sure didn't get off to a stellar start last year," Edwards reminded. And Johnson roared from behind later in the season and still tied Cale Yarborough's record of three straight Cups.
But the nature of Johnson's stumble this year is the inverse from what he was going through last year, he said.
"The one thing that we didn't have last year was fast race cars," Johnson said. "We had great stops, hit our stride on strategy, I wasn't making mistakes. We were ready, but the car wasn't.
"This year the car is more than ready, and we've been making mistakes. I was looking for the walk-off home run last weekend and had a big swing and a miss and stuffed it in the fence."
Overzealous after a mistake in his pits, Johnson was trying for a huge comeback win when he spun and crashed with seven laps to go.
"So," he continued, "it's just about getting that right mindset and getting in the groove and checking things off."
"Really, we've had just two races," Edwards said. "Daytona is a crapshoot" -- a restrictor-plate race, rarely indicative of the whole season to come on intermediate and short tracks and road courses.
And even at Daytona, "I went through that [big, late] wreck on Matt's bumper," Edwards said of 500 winner Matt Kenseth, a Roush Fenway Racing teammate. "So I figured if I would have made it through without any damage, I could have had just as good a chance of winning."
Thus far, Johnson has finishes of 31st, ninth and 24th, and Edwards 16th, seventh and 17th.
Yet all in all, "what does it matter if they're off for the first 26 [races]?" said Kyle Busch, considered one of the major contenders outside the duo. "They'll probably hit their stride in the final 10."
"You know those guys are going to be there in the end," Kevin Harvick agreed.
"Although points are very important, you've got to look more at how people are performing," said Jeff Burton, a Chaser last year who is 18th in the standings. "I think the 48 [Johnson] and the 99 [Edwards] have performed well.
"I know when I was leading the race last week, the 48 was running me down for a period of time. I know the 99 was running well too. Sometimes you have to overlook points, this time of year especially, and look at who's running well.
"And those guys are going to be just fine," Burton continued, then hedged a bit. "If they have a lot of bad luck they won't be just fine. But I wouldn't take them off my list just yet."
Even with the blown engine last week, Edwards isn't worried about another one Sunday. "It wasn't something, I don't think, that's necessarily going to show up again," he said.
The abrasive surface of AMS tends to wear tires faster than the pavement at Vegas. So tire falloff could cut down on the high, sustained engine RPM blamed by some for the Vegas failures of three of the five Roush drivers' engines, including the blowup that ended Kenseth's chance of becoming the first driver ever to win the first three races in a season.
Edwards said team owner Jack Roush had found other possible causes.
"He didn't feel like the RPM issue was the only thing that hurt us last week," Edwards said. "He thought there might have actually been a little problem with one of the clearances on our bearings."
But "this place, it'll slow down and there will be more change in RPM over a lap," Edwards continued, "so it should be easier on the engine."
The tire falloff, "I think, is great for the racing," Edwards said, pointing to last fall's race here, where Johnson put on new tires for the finish. Johnson shot from back in the field up to second so quickly at the finish that Edwards didn't even know Johnson was right behind him until Edwards was told in Victory Lane.
"What Jimmie did in the last race here, coming all the way back to second, that's fun for the fans to watch," Edwards said, "so I love this place for that."
But Johnson said he may try to restrain himself from such a wild charge this time.
"Where we are in points," Johnson said, "we'll certainly race for wins, but we don't want to get in a big hole. We just need to put in a strong race, have a strong finish. If we have a chance to win, we're certainly going to take that.
"But you're not going to see me, with seven laps to go [like last week], try to get up there and win it."
Then he stopped himself.
"Well, I say that, but last time we were here, I guess I was 11th with a few to go and got it up to second.
"But I will try to back it down 5 percent, to keep the rear end under the car."
For Johnson, relatively speaking, that's caution after a slow start.
Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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