Who can dethrone Jimmie Johnson?

by Monte Dutton

It’s becoming the Annual Question That Doesn’t Have an Answer: Who can beat Jimmie Johnson?

The same driver has won five consecutive Sprint Cup championships. No one else in history has ever won more than three straight (Cale Yarborough, 1976-78). Johnson’s five championships have been accompanied by five different runners-up: Matt Kenseth (2006), Jeff Gordon (2007), Carl Edwards (2008), Mark Martin (2009) and Denny Hamlin (2010).

Only two drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, ever won more championships — seven, in both instances — in their careers than Johnson has won in consecutive years. Only one other driver, Gordon, has ever won more than three. Gordon, Johnson’s teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, won his fourth championship in 2001.

Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick came close to putting an end to Johnson’s streak this year. Hamlin won eight races, two more than Johnson, and trailed him by just 39 points at season’s end. Harvick was the series’ most consistent driver with 26 top-10 finishes, three more than Johnson.

Who steps up next to challenge Johnson, who seems the perennial champion?

Certainly Hamlin and Johnson, but Edwards, whose No. 99 Ford won the season’s final two races, also will enter the 2011 campaign with high aspirations, as will former champions Gordon (1995, ’97-98, 2001), Tony Stewart (2002, ’05), Kurt Busch (2004), Matt Kenseth (2003) and even Bobby Labonte (2000), who is moving into a new ride.

What of Kyle Busch, who won a total of 24 races in NASCAR’s three major series, but only three in Cup? Or Dale Earnhardt Jr., still struggling after three years at Hendrick Motorsports? Or Mark Martin, who will be driving that team’s No. 5 for the final year?

One compelling long shot might be the 2009 Raybestos Rookie of the Year, Joey Logano, who hasn’t yet made a Chase but who collected five top-10 finishes in the season’s final six races.

The season just completed marked the closest margin of Johnson’s five titles. Johnson’s fifth marked Hendrick Motorsports’ 10 th championship, equaling the total of Petty Enterprises, which won seven titles with Richard Petty and three with his father, Lee. Both are now enshrined in the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

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 ‘© 2010 King Features Syndicate

Carl Edwards, left, and Denny Hamlin are two drivers who could possibly derail the history-making Jimmy Johnson train in 2011. (John Clark/NASCAR This Week photo)