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Johnson Remains On Title Path But Challengers Loom Large

Yes, this has happened before – you read that here or elsewhere just a week ago.

But that it is happening again should alert observers, and his rivals alike, that Jimmie Johnson is following a familiar, well trod and ultimately rewarding path to another NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.

Johnson dominated the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway and then bested Kasey Kahne in a green-white-checkered restart to win the race by 0.548-second.

It was Johnson’s second victory of the year and his first in the Chase, in which four of 10 races have been completed. It was also the 55th win of his career and the 20th in 74 Chase races.

Johnson is now tied with Rusty Wallace for eighth place on the all-time Cup win list.

But while he’s no doubt pleased with that, he’s likely more satisfied with another major step taken toward an almost unfathomable sixth consecutive championship.

So far, he’s done almost exactly what he did last year when he won his fifth title. To date his record in the Chase is so identical to last year’s “playoffs” it’s downright eerie.

Johnson is now third in the point standings, just four points behind leader Carl Edwards and, with six races remaining, obviously well within striking distance.

Johnson stumbled out of the gate when the Chase began but his quick rise in the standings mirrors last year.

Johnson finished 10th at Chicago, and an uncharacteristic 18th at New Hampshire, the first two events in the Chase. As a result he ranked 10th in points, 29 behind then leader Tony Stewart.

OK, as has been said before – but certainly bears repeating – in 2010, Johnson finished 25th at New Hampshire, then the first race in the Chase, and was seventh in points.

Unlike 2011, Johnson quickly recovered with a win at Dover and was second in the standings after two races. Then, the following week at Kansas, Johnson moved into first place with a runnerup finish.

It took three races for him to move atop the heap.

In the third race of this year’s Chase, Johnson finished second at Dover and came to Kansas fifth in points, 13 behind co-leaders Edwards and Kevin Harvick.

And now comes the victory at Kansas, which has moved Johnson into third place.

No, he’s not the points leader after three races or even four. But he’s clearly in a good position to win another championship – and he got there through achievements that almost exactly mirror those of 2010.

He has made up a point deficit and, again, has come to the forefront of title contention.

If Johnson continues to perform as he has so far in the Chase – in other words match the pattern of 2010 – another title could well be his.

This is not to say that it will. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is assured with six races remaining.

“We ran really well at Chicago,” said Johnson, whose Hendrick Motorsports team has routinely done well on mile-and-a-half tracks such as Chicago and Kansas, “and we didn’t get the finish we kind of deserved there (10th) because the fuel mileage. We came here and backed it up with another strong performance on mile-and-a-halfs.

“We’re very excited going forward into the remaining mile-and-a half tracks, starting with Charlotte next week, and we’ll just keep fighting.

“This thing isn’t going to be over until Homestead. We came a long way from the opening race, or New Hampshire for that matter, but there’s still a lot of racing left.”

Obviously Johnson is best served if he continues to do what he did last season. At the very least he must remain consistent because, given how close the Chase currently is, any performance fade could make a difference.

Not to mention the fact that a few of Johnson’s rivals have shown no sign of capitulating.

But they, too, must perform consistently. Ultimately that makes all the difference.

Tony Stewart, for example, rocketed into the Chase lead with two consecutive victories. Since then he’s finished 25th at Dover and 15th at Kansas. That is clearly not consistency, and thus, Stewart is now seventh in points. However, I quickly add that he’s 19 points in arrears and still in contention.

Meanwhile, Edwards and Harvick hold the top spots in points because their high performance levels have not wavered throughout the Chase.

In other words, they have remained remarkably consistent.

Combined, they have finished out of the top 10 in the Chase only once to date, when Harvick was 12th at New Hampshire. Edwards, in fact, has finished outside the top five just once, an eighth-place run, also at New Hampshire.

Consequently they were tied atop the point standings going into Kansas and the deadlock was broken – barely – when Edwards finished fifth and Harvick sixth.

A single point now separates Edwards and Harvick.

They lead what continues to be a very close competition for the championship.

“There is still so much racing left,” Edwards said. “We have run four races and it feels like we have run 400. There is a lot that can happen in the next six races. I have a feeling there will be more moments that define this championship, all the way up to the last lap at Homestead. I think you will have to be on your game.”

Behind the trio of Edwards, Harvick and Johnson, who are separated by four points, is Brad Keselowski, a “wildcard” Chase entry who is fourth in points, 11 in arrears.

Matt Kenseth, who is12 points back, and Kurt Busch, now16 down, follow him.

As said, Stewart is 19 points back and behind him is Kyle Busch, 20 in arrears.

None of them can be counted out.

In fact, it would not be wise to count out most – not all – of the remainder of the top 12 in points but, realistically, their chances for a title are slim.

What is clearly in focus now as the Chase enters its final six races is that Johnson is – again – a contender for the title who has – again – overcome early adversity.

But his foremost challengers are two drivers who have so far established exceptional on-track performances from the start of the Chase.

It will be as Edwards said. It’s clear there will be some defining moments in this championship until the Chase is complete.

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