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Who can dethrone Jimmie Johnson?

by Monte Dutton

As the 2011 season gets under way, one NASCAR driver after another remarked that the sport had never been so competitive.

Say what? The same guy has won the past five championships!

By definition, the level of competition is lower, not higher, when one guy wins all the time. The guy’s name, of course, is Jimmie Johnson. He has the best crew chief (Chad Knaus), and the two of them work for the best team (Hendrick Motorsports).

Since Johnson debuted in NASCAR’s premier series, now Sprint Cup, in 2002, it hasn’t been competitive at all. He’s won 53 races, almost twice as many as any other driver. During that span, Tony Stewart is second with 27.

Jeff Gordon has 24.

No signs of weakness darken the perennial champion’s outlook.

“Well, it’s obviously a new year and new set of challenges,” said Johnson. “It’s awfully early to even understand what the challenges are going to be. We hope that we’re smarter through all the hard work that we’ve been going through in the offseason. We’re working hard on all fronts to be a better race team.

“Last year we learned a lot more about ourselves and kind of validated our core beliefs and stuck to what the [No.] 48 team is known for and what we believe in, and were still able to overcome a lot of adversity and win a championship. I feel like we’ll be stronger and better, but we just don’t know until we get into the meat of the season, and the first goal is obviously to make the Chase and from there figure out how to win again.”

What could make NASCAR more competitive? Why, beating Johnson would be a good start.

Seldom has excellence been less appreciated.

The easygoing Johnson is an unlikely villain. He is good-natured, reasonably frank and cooperative. He cheerfully upholds his obligations. Few of his detractors in the grandstand would dislike him if they knew him personally.

What Johnson, in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevy, has done in nine seasons, not just the past five, is incredible. He has never finished worse than fifth in the standings. Over the span of his career,

Johnson has also dominated the sport in laps led (10,996), winning percentage (.164), earnings ($88,893,977) and points (55,592).

As Johnson said after the fourth of his five straight titles, “I’ve always set my marks high — but I had no clue this stuff would happen.”

Johnson locked up his fifth championship by finishing second to Carl Edwards in the final race. He came to Homestead-Miami Speedway trailing Denny Hamlin by 15 points, but Hamlin struggled all day and finished 14 th . Kevin Harvick, who finished third in the Ford 400, was 41 points off the pace.

Hamlin and Harvick made Johnson work and figure to do so again, but this is neither horseshoes nor hand grenades, and close doesn’t count.

Johnson’s mastery is centered in the format known as the Chase. After 26 races, the standings are redrawn and the 12 drivers then deemed worthy to compete for the championship begin what basically are races within races for the final 10 events. Beginning in 2006, the first of Johnson’s five consecutive championship years, not once has he led the standings at the end of the regular season. But Johnson has won 19 of the 70 Chase races since the format was devised in 2004. In second place is Carl Edwards with eight.

“Jimmie has had an unbelievable ability to perform in the Chase and win championships,” said Edwards.

What is a Chase without “hot pursuit”? Hamlin and Harvick are obviously the most likely to give Johnson a run for even more money. Hamlin had more victories than anyone, led the standings entering the final race and staked his claim to the ever-changing, seldom-true role of heir apparent. Harvick’s consistency over the course of the season was by far the best. Edwards, who finished fourth in the 2010 standings and won the season’s final two races, also figures to challenge the perennial nature of Johnson titles.

It is a daunting task, however, and they all know it.

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. ‘© 2011 King Features Syndicate

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