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Johnson still 2 options for chance at 8th NASCAR Cup title
Johnson still 2 options for chance at 8th NASCAR Cup title

FORT WORTH, Texas — Jimmie Johnson still has two very conceivable options for a chance to race for his record-breaking eighth NASCAR Cup Series championship.

Win one of the next two races, or just be in the top four in points after that, and Johnson will get one of the four championship-contending spots in two weeks.

"I do feel good about getting in," Johnson said.

Johnson is a seven-time winner at Texas, where the Cup Series races Sunday. He won there in April in the first race after the 1 1/2-mile track was completely repaved and restructured in Turns 1 and 2. And in the current driver standings, he is only three points out of the top four spots.

As for Chase Elliott, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate is probably in a must-win situation after being oh-so-close to being locked into a title shot at Homestead.

Elliott arrived in Texas eighth among the eight championship contenders, and 26 points out of the top four, after being wrecked by Denny Hamlin when leading two laps shy of the scheduled checkered flag at Martinsville last weekend. His first Cup victory would have locked him into a championship chance, and a top-five finish could have been a points boost. He instead finished 27th.

"As long as the week has gone along, it has given me a lot of time to think about how close we were to going to Homestead," Elliott said. "I think if anything else that will drive you up the wall more if you think about it."

Making things even more difficult and frustrating for Elliott in Texas, the No. 24 didn't make it through tech inspection in time to make a qualifying run Friday. He will start 34th while all the other seven championship contenders qualified in the top 10.

Martinsville winner Kyle Busch, who held off points leader Martin Truex Jr. in the race that needed five extra laps, is the only driver who has clinched one of the four championship-contending spots in the season finale.

Kurt Busch, out of championship contention and with his Cup status for next season still unsettled, is on the pole at Texas after being one of five drivers with qualifying laps of more than 200 mph . He is now with Stewart-Haas Racing, though doesn't have a deal settled for 2018 with that or any other team.

"No updates for me. We are in negotiations," Busch said, without elaborating after qualifying. "Days like today help quite a bit."

Hamilin, who is seventh in points, qualified second after going 200.617 mph. Kevin Harvick, now holding down the fourth spot, starts third. Points leader Truex starts seventh, two spots behind Kyle Busch.

"Definitely confidence is high. Feel good about it. Mile and a half is — obviously they've been good for us this year, but honestly, I feel like everywhere we go this year, right now especially, we can run up front and have a shot at winning," Truex said. "Being able to come here with a pretty nice points cushion feels good, and hopefully we'll be able to go out here and take care of business."

Brad Keselowski, the other driver currently in the top four spots, starts 10th. That is a spot lower than Johnson, who has gone 20 races without a win.

"Comfortable here, we've stayed alive. It hasn't been pretty, but we've stayed alive," Johnson said. "And we're at one of our best tracks. ... We want to win. If we can't do that, we understand where we are at the points. Hopefully we can do it."

Hamlin has apologized publicly on social media to Elliott, but that didn't change the frustration for Elliott, who said in Texas that he wouldn't answer any questions about whether he was going to try to get Hamlin back on the track.

That led to Johnson being asked if he had to be extra careful if he found himself behind Hamlin and his teammate Sunday.

"Yeah, you stay aware. There is no doubt about it you don't want to be caught up in something that you don't need to be," Johnson said. "But, we will just see how that evolves. Last weekend was crazy on a lot of levels."

There is certainly a lot more room, and a whole lot more speed, at the high-banked oval in Texas.


Lions, Packers look for offensive fixes at Lambeau
Lions, Packers look for offensive fixes at Lambeau

GREEN BAY, Wis. — Minus a consistent running game, the Detroit Lions are having trouble scoring touchdowns in the red zone.

Without quarterback Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers are working on getting their passing attack back on track.

The NFC North rivals meet at Lambeau Field in a game Monday night that could be decided by which team first figures out how to fix its offense.

The loser faces an uphill climb trying to keep pace with division-leading Minnesota.

"I think it is just execution and (being) detail-oriented," quarterback Matthew Stafford said about improving in the red zone . "I don't think there's any massive scheme overhaul ... We've just got to find a way to get it in."

A 20-15 loss last week to the Steelers included three lackluster second-half possessions inside the 10 for the Lions (3-4). They failed to score on two of the drives and had to settle for a field goal on the third. Detroit fell to 28th in the NFL in red-zone offense, converting on just 45 percent of opportunities.

Another 400-yard passing game for Stafford won't mean much if the Lions' struggles inside the 20 continue. Detroit has eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark as a team just once this year, a 24-10 win over the New York Giants in Week 2.

"I'm more interested in winning, more so than anything else. And how we go about it, it could vary," coach Jim Caldwell said.

In Green Bay (4-3), the passing game is the more pressing problem with Rodgers out with a collarbone injury. Third-year quarterback Brett Hundley is slated to make his second NFL start.

The first start, two weeks ago against New Orleans, started impressively enough thanks to the quarterback's scrambling ability and a career-high 131 yards rushing for rooking running back Aaron Jones.

But a once-potent passing game struggled down the stretch. Coach Mike McCarthy has said that he needs to get Hundley more comfortable dropping back in the pocket . The Packers must also do a better job of getting the ball into the hands of their playmaking receivers.

Wideouts Jordy Nelson, Randall Cobb and Davante Adams, along with tight end Martellus Bennett, combined for just seven catches, 57 yards and no touchdowns against the Saints.

"Now, why? There are things that Brett can improve on, and we're working on it," McCarthy said. "But we're going to go out there and we're going to be a balanced offense ... and Brett's going to lead the charge on offense."

Other things to watch in the matchup between the Lions and Packers:

ON THE LINE: A bye week gave McCarthy's banged-up squad some needed rest. Especially important for Hundley will be the potential reunion of the starting offensive line after left guard Lane Taylor missed the Saints game with an ankle injury. Standout tackles David Bakhtiari and Bryan Bulaga have also missed some time this year because of injuries.

"We're getting close to being fully healthy as a team," McCarthy said at midweek.

REVERSING COURSE: The Lions are slumping after starting the season with two wins. They've lost three straight and four of five dating to a 30-26 loss to Atlanta in Week 3 that ended with a 10-second runoff rule.

Stafford isn't panicking.

"You kind of win one in the division, it counts for two, right? ... So, you kind of control your destiny in that regard," the quarterback said.

SLAYING IT: Lions cornerback Darius Slay, who is second in the NFC with nine pass deflections, has played well of late. He helped contain Steelers star Antonio Brown to five catches and 70 yards. Watch the matchup against Green Bay's deep receiving corps with Nelson, Adams and Cobb all capable of big games.

DEFENSIVE QB: Green Bay's secondary could get a boost with the potential return of Morgan Burnett after the safety missed two games with a hamstring injury. The eight-year veteran usually calls the defensive signals and takes on an inside linebacker-type role in certain schemes, allowing the Packers to keep a solid run defender on the field against spread looks.

HEY ROOKIE: Jones has gone from a Week 1 inactive to the Packers' best option in the run game. A slasher who has shown ability to break out for big gains, Jones is second in the NFL behind Baltimore's Alex Collins in averaging 5.58 yards per carry.

"His natural run instincts obviously stand out but he's still working on the other aspects of our offense," McCarthy said. "I think he's done a heck of a job."

___

AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Detroit contributed to this story.


Chiefs' Hunt gets showdown with Cowboys' Elliott after all
Chiefs' Hunt gets showdown with Cowboys' Elliott after all

ARLINGTON, Texas — Kareem Hunt will get to compare himself to Ezekiel Elliott after all when Kansas City visits Dallas.

The dynamic rookie running back for the Chiefs is doing many of the things the Cowboys star did in his debut last season, headlined by leading the NFL in rushing.

Thanks to another temporary legal reprieve for Elliott, Hunt will get an up-close comparison Sunday against Dallas (4-3). Elliott will be able to play after a federal appeals court granted an emergency stay Friday. There have been two previous halts to Elliott's six-game suspension over alleged domestic violence.

Hunt didn't mind saying he was disappointed that he wouldn't face Elliott when the suspension was in place earlier in the week. The Chiefs (6-2) will try to set a franchise record with a 10th straight road win.

"I watched Zeke a ton," Hunt said of his senior year at Toledo, when Elliott and quarterback Dak Prescott, his fellow rookie, were powering the Cowboys to the best record in the NFC. "Dak played pretty well and so did he. I was able to watch and see all the great runs he had. I kind of wanted to come in and have a year like he did his rookie season."

Consider it done so far. Hunt is the first NFL player with at least 100 scrimmage yards in each of first seven games and leads the NFL with 763 yards rushing and 1,070 yards from scrimmage.

"He's the engine behind that offense," Dallas coach Jason Garrett said. "He's been one of those guys who's been steady for them, but also has made a lot of plays for them."

While he's not quite on the rushing pace of Elliott when the Dallas back led the league with 1,631 yards a year ago, Hunt is another option when quarterback Alex Smith already has plenty, including All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.

Smith is four touchdowns from tying Peyton Manning's record of 20 TD tosses without an interception to start a season while guiding the NFL's third-ranked offense.

Things to consider in Kansas City's first visit to the $1.2 billion home of the Cowboys that opened in 2009:

ELLIOTT SAGA

The 22-year-old is on the third legal ruling keeping him on the field, although this one has the chance to be the shortest if the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York rules on his request for an injunction next week. Elliott has now been away from the team four days because of the suspension — one day two weeks ago after a New Orleans appeals court lifted an injunction granted in Texas and three days this week after a New York judge rejected his request for another injunction.

"It's really at this point hard for me to get down or up about this whole situation because tomorrow it could be something different," Elliott said Friday after he was allowed to rejoin the team. "So I mean it's really not, like I said, worth my time to even worry about."

THE BUTTKICKER

If the game comes down to field goals, give the edge to the Chiefs. Harrison Butker has connected on 18 straight attempts since missing the first of his career. The pickup off the Carolina practice squad was 5 for 5 in Monday night's victory over Denver, including one from 51 yards. The Cowboys are without Dan Bailey, the most accurate in history among kickers with at least 100 attempts, because of a groin injury. Mike Nugent missed his first kick as the replacement last week against Washington, a 49-yarder, but made the next four in a 33-19 win.

UP TO THE BOOTH

Tony Romo, the Dallas franchise leader in passing yards and touchdowns, will call his first Cowboys game as the lead analyst for CBS. A year ago, he was still recovering from a back injury that made Prescott the starter, a job Prescott never gave up thanks to a franchise-record 11-game winning streak. Romo was the backup when he was healthy again, then chose replacing Phil Simms alongside Jim Nantz over trying to chase an elusive Super Bowl somewhere else.

"I am looking forward to the production meeting," Prescott said. "Obviously the first time with Romo will be cool."

BULLDOG BUDDIES

Prescott could see a lot of an old friend in the backfield. He was teammates with Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones at Mississippi State. Jones was actually chosen ahead of Prescott in 2016, going in the second round to Kansas City. Prescott was a fourth-rounder.