BROOKLYN, Mich. The Chase for the Sprint Cup title begins in less than a month, which means its time to revisit what has become NASCARs annual, season-ending question: Can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson?
The five-time defending champion finished a solid second last weekend at Michigan, and although hes won only once on the Sprint Cup circuit this year, Johnson is second in the standings, just 10 points behind Kyle Busch. Even after being outraced by Busch on Sunday, Johnson sounded confident that hell be ready when the Chase begins Sept. 18 at Chicagoland.
The thing that Ive been able to pull back on and fall on was my past history, Johnson said. Im very interested to see how this Chase is going to go. I think its the hardest one to predict. Its going to be a close one. I dont know who to make the favorite. Well just have to see how everybody responds to the pressure when it really kicks up.
Johnsons run nearly came to an end last year, but he overtook Denny Hamlin in the standings by running second in the season finale. Now its Busch who seems to be mounting the strongest challenge to Johnsons reign.
Yet even he is choosing his words carefully, well aware of the task ahead.
Its definitely going to be a lot edgier through the Chase, Busch said. Certainly theres going to be times throughout the Chase where youve got to play it right, and you have to play it smart, be smooth and cool about it. For us, the biggest thing is to try to concentrate on what weve been doing all year.
Busch was the regular-season points leader in 2008, but a bolt broke on his sway bar in the first race of the Chase, and then a blown engine the following weekend ended his hopes for the championship. Buschs fall from contention to also-ran status stunningly was swift and underscores how remarkably consistent Johnson has been.
Johnson may have only one win this year, but last weekend was the sixth top-three showing for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, and hes finished out of the top 20 only three times. His day was far from perfect Sunday an early mistake on pit road dropped him way behind the leaders but he raced back into contention and even took the lead before Busch passed him with about a dozen laps remaining.
Outlasting the experienced Johnson over the long haul looks like a daunting task for any driver.
The Chase does something to everyone, the pressure thats put on the drivers, watching your lifes work come to a head over a 10-race period of time, Johnson said. As the races click off, it comes down to two or three races left; it does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. Weve seen that.
Johnsons dominance of NASCARs top level has become so ingrained, its not just the other drivers who have to answer for it. Immediately after Buschs victory last weekend, Dave Rogers, his crew chief, was asked how he can beat Chad Knaus, Johnsons crew chief.
Thats a good question, Rogers said. Were going to control what we can control. I cant control what Chad does. I cant control what Jimmie does.
Busch isnt the only top driver hoping to dethrone Johnson. Kevin Harvick has three Sprint Cup wins this season, and Carl Edwards has 10 top-five finishes.
Then theres Brad Keselowski, who is in 12th place but gaining ground fast after three consecutive top-three showings. Keselowski looks likely to make the Chase as a wild card, but as well as hes racing right now, he understands what it will take to keep Johnson from another Cup title.
Im sure a lot of people in the garage would say his last championship was the most impressive, Keselowski said. To beat Jimmie, youre going to have to have a fast racecar and outexecute him. I think hes proven that just having a fast racecar isnt going to beat him.
There are three races remaining before the Chase begins, but for Johnson and the other drivers at the top of the standings, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond feel more like tuneups before the real fun starts.
You are going to be tested in all areas. We all have weaknesses, and we all have strengths, Johnson said. In order to win a championship in todays world, youve got to be rock solid. We will all learn in time who that guy is this year. Weve been it the last five. Doesnt mean this year is our year. Weve got to go out and earn it.