The quest to beat Jimmie Johnson

by Monte Dutton

Who is the favorite to win the Sprint Cup championship in 2011?

Hah! Think of the person you know who cares the least about NASCAR. Even he (or she) can probably answer the question. It’s the same guy who won the last five, Jimmie Johnson.

As sportswriter and author Damon Runyan said (or more likely, wrote), “The race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.”

But NASCAR is far too competitive for any driver to enter a season as the overwhelming favorite, isn’t it? Hope springs eternal during every off-season.

“You know, some stars are born, some stars are coming on now, and it just takes time,” said NASCAR chairman Brian France in November 2010. “Our job is to make sure that we are putting the best racing in the world forward, and let those story lines and incredible performances get the recognition over time as they will, and that’s what we do.”

Each of Johnson’s five championships have featured a different runner-up: Matt Kenseth (2006), Jeff Gordon (2007), Carl Edwards (2008), Mark Martin (2009) and Denny Hamlin (2010).

It’s not uncommon, naturally, for the runner-up one year to be considered a prime contender the following year, and that certainly is the case for Hamlin, who won two more races (8) than Johnson. Kevin Harvick, the regular-season points leader, finished a relatively close third. Edwards was fourth and takes a two-race win streak into the 2011 season opener at Daytona International Speedway.

As is almost always the case, Kyle Busch, a prodigious winner who has slumped notably in past Chases, will get considerable attention, along with four-time champion Jeff Gordon, two-time champion Tony Stewart and others.

Harvick, while paying just tribute to Johnson’s unprecedented achievements, also referred to a “golden horseshoe,” thus suggesting that good fortune hasn’t been the least of Johnson’s virtues during his run of titles.

The notion that Johnson’s luck is “bound to run out” seems a bit less inevitable now than it did four years ago.

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 ( features all of his reporting on racing, roots music and life on the road. E-mail Monte at ‘ 2011 King Features Syndicate

Who will unseat five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson? Kevin Harvick, seen at center after winning last year’s Daytona 500, came close. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)