Footsteps closing in on Jimmie Johnson, but he maintains grip on first place

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Jimmie Johnson has to hear the footsteps getting closer and closer.

Johnson remains atop NASCAR’s Sprint Cup standings for the 12th consecutive week after Sunday’s race at Kentucky, but his lead in the points is definitely tightening.

Johnson’s high point this season was a 51-point edge over Carl Edwards after JJ’s win at Pocono three weeks ago. After Sonoma, it was 31 points in front of Edwards, but went back up to 38 points after Kentucky.

But the rest of the pack is closing in: Clint Bowyer is only 41 points behind Johnson after Kentucky, Kevin Harvick is 66 points back, Kentucky winner Matt Kenseth is 82 points behind and Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 98 points in arrears.

With 17 races down and nine more to go to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, a number of drivers are sitting in some pretty uncomfortable positions right now:

* Topping the list of guys starting to worry are defending Sprint Cup champ Brad Keselowski, who fell out of the top 10 after Sunday’s race at Kentucky. Keselowski is now 145 points behind Johnson and in 13th place.

* Three-time Sprint Cup champ Tony Stewart, whose most recent title came in 2011 in the closest season finish in NASCAR history (beat Carl Edwards by a tie-breaker), dropped to 16th after Kentucky, 153 points behind Johnson.

* Four-time Cup champ Jeff Gordon still has a good shot at climbing back into the top 10. While Gordon is 133 points behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, the driver of the No. 24 Chevy is just two points out of 10th place (Joey Logano).

* Ryan Newman, who may or may not be back with Stewart Haas Racing next season (depending upon sponsorship and a new contract), has fallen to 18th place, 162 points behind Johnson. With no wins, Newman’s chances of making the Chase grow slimmer with each race.

* Denny Hamlin, who missed four races earlier this season with a neck and back injury, is a massive 281 points behind Johnson, currently in 25th place. To make the Chase as a one of two potential wild cards, Hamlin not only has to climb back into the top 20, he also has to win at least two races in the next nine – a tall order, indeed.

NHRA Gatornationals: John Force qualifies 15th with no motor explosion, says ‘I need to race smart’ Sunday

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There’s good news and bad news for John Force fans.

The good news is the 16-time NHRA Funny Car champ did not suffer yet another motor explosion after enduring his third in three races during Friday’s qualifying session at Gainesville (Florida) Raceway.

In fact, Force intentionally feathered the gas pedal on his Chevrolet Camaro Funny Car to make sure it wasn’t again overtaxed, qualifying 15th with a run of 4.281 seconds at 222.88 mph.

Now for the bad news.

When Sunday’s final eliminations begin at 11 a.m. ET, Force will be matched against daughter and No. 2 qualifier, Courtney Force (3.914 seconds at 332.18 mph).

“It is a little bit of a bummer that I have to race him in the first round,” Courtney Force said of her father. “Tomorrow is a new day and we will have all our stuff ready and we will put on our game faces to go for that win.”

Courtney Force is seeking her second consecutive win, having also won two weeks ago at the second national event of the season in suburban Phoenix.

“I want to have a good side-by-side safe race tomorrow in round one,” Force said. “Our goal is to take my dad down and have a long day at the track winning rounds.

“We want to move the momentum over from Phoenix. I feel like my guys have a good handle on this Advance Auto Parts Camaro.”

But don’t count out dear old dad, an eight-time Funny Car winner at Gainesville.

“I am the kind of guy that, when it is qualifying day, I run it to the edge.,” John Force said. “I run it even if I know it will hurt itself.

“(With his three motor explosions this season) I am rethinking all that. What I am looking is the long haul. To go out here and say I have to win this race or I have to qualify low after as much stuff as we have put on the ground in Pomona and Phoenix and then to come here and do it again is bad. … We want to fix this problem and move on.

“Tomorrow I am going to have to play the odds game. I am going to run it to 700 or 800 feet and hope (Courtney) gets in trouble. I need to race smart.”

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