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Can Johnson make it four in a row?

by Monte Dutton

As much as he would like to play this down, Jimmie Johnson enters the Chase for the Sprint Cup as the favorite.

In part, this is because Johnson, who just turned 34, has won three races this year. In part, it is because he begins the Chase as the third seed, tied at 5,030 points with Tony Stewart.

Mainly, however, the favorite’s role is Johnson’s because he has won the past three championships, a feat matched only once (by Cale Yarborough, 1976-78) in NASCAR his- by Monte Dutton tory. Another title would make Johnson the only winner of four consecutive championships.

Johnson is the only driver to make every Chase field. Denny Hamlin has made it in every year of his career, which began in 2006, but Hamlin wasn’t around when the format was first implemented in 2004.

But Johnson professes to being uneasy. “Guys who have been kind of locked in [having clinched spots in the Chase several weeks ago], including Stewart, myself, Jeff [Gordon], we’ve been kind of running decent, but maybe not scoring the most points,” said Johnson. “I think it’s tough to really give this to anybody and really pick a favorite.

“So we need to just buckle down, put in 10 good ones [races] and work really hard.”

Johnson hasn’t won a race since the Allstate 400 at Indianapolis, six races ago. In the races since, he has finished 13th , 12th , 33rd , eighth, 36th and 11th . Meanwhile, by means of comparison, the driver who raced his way into the Chase at Richmond, Brian Vickers, has accumulated finishes of sixth, 11th , first, 12th , seventh and seventh over the same span.

“Nobody has had a clear advantage,” said Johnson. “I’m optimistic and feel we have a very good chance.”

In 2006, Johnson won the title by 56 points over 2003 champion Matt Kenseth (who failed to make this Chase). He outpointed Hendrick Motorsports teammate (and four-time champ) Gordon by 77. Last year Johnson’s margin was 69 over Carl Edwards.

Almost everyone considers Johnson the man to beat, with the possible exception of Johnson himself.

Monte Dutton has covered motorsports for The Gaston (NC) Gazette since 1993. He was named writer of the year by the National Motorsports Press Association in 2008. His blog NASCAR This Week (nascar.rbma.com) features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at nascar_thisweek@yahoo.com.

(c) 2009 King Features Synd., Inc.

Though he hasn’t won in seven races, threetime Sprint Cup championJimmie Johnson says he’s “optimistic” about another Cup championship.(John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)

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