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Johnson flying under the radar into Chase

September 14, 2012, Holly Cain, Special to NASCAR.COM, NASCAR.com

Five-time champion still a threat despite accolades being heaped on other drivers

The racing "experts" all but crowned top-seeded Denny Hamlin the new champion during the weeklong build-up to Sunday's opening round of the Chase for Sprint Cup. Meanwhile, Junior Nation is downright giddy over Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s best chance at a first title.

Even Jeff Gordon's new mustache has gotten more championship buzz than a certain five-time champion.

How they are

Chase seeds after bonuses
Pos.DriverWinsBehind
2. J. Johnson 3 -3
3. T. Stewart 3 -3
4. B. Keselowski 3 -3
5. G. Biffle 2 -6
6. C. Bowyer 2 -6
7. Dale Jr. 1 -9
8. M. Kenseth 1 -9
9. K. Harvick 0 -12
10. M. Truex Jr. 0 -12
11. K. Kahne WC -12
12. J. Gordon WC -12

That's all cool with Jimmie Johnson, who offers only a humble, "I feel good about it,'' when asked about his chances at a sixth Cup title in the past seven years.

Has the most dominant driver of his time slid into this year's championship showdown below the radar and all but forgotten?

Hamlin's four wins -- two in the past three weeks -- and his status as 2010 title runner-up have made his shot at redemption a popular bandwagon to hop on. And Earnhardt, NASCAR's perennial Most Popular Driver, has converted the doubters into believing this is the year he can mount a legitimate championship run.

Gordon, a four-time champion, delivered a dramatic wild-card berth -- clinching his chance to contend for the title in the final laps of the regular-season finale -- and promises he's not done yet.

Any of these high-profile drivers deserve the big, bold headlines and deliver a compelling storyline in a postseason that boasts no clear cut championship favorite.

Thing is, they will all have to beat Johnson. And they know it.

His three wins this year in the No. 48 Chevrolet and his fourth-place finish in the final standings make him the No. 2 seed entering Sunday's race at Chicagoland Speedway.

For yet another season, he heads into the Chase leading his competition in most of the key statistical categories.

He holds the top driver rating and has led a series-high 14 percent of all laps led -- 1,033 laps compared to second-place Hamlin's 899 laps. Johnson has the most number of "fast laps" (764) and the best pass differential.

When it comes to the 10 Chase tracks, Johnson and Gordon have a series-best 31 wins since 2005, but Johnson's average finish of 10th is tops among everyone. This season, he has four top-three finishes -- and a win at Dover in June -- at upcoming Chase venues.

Although Chicagoland is one of five tracks where Johnson has not won, he has eight top-10 finishes in 10 races there.

"When I look at the Chase, I look at eight of my best tracks are in the Chase,'' Johnson said. "There are a lot of the 1.5-mile tracks, which have been the bread and butter for the No. 48 team. You've got Martinsville. There is Talladega, and I haven't finished a plate race this year, but I'm bound to finish one before long.

"I'm excited for it. Each race, we are going to take as it comes and last year's Chase showed that this thing isn't over until the last lap at Homestead. Our chances are as good as anybody's."

It's the kind of low-key, cautiously optimistic prediction people have come to expect from Johnson, but it belies the formidable opponent he really is: a focused, determined and talented driver who reeled off a historic run of five consecutive championships.

People often ask Johnson if he is more motivated after losing the 2011 trophy to Stewart, but Johnson always has insisted he can't be any more motivated.

"Last year we just got beat," Johnson said. "The way Tony closed out the year and you just look at our performance versus the No. 14 [of Stewart], we would have been beat. There are years when you get beat, and that is part of it.

"We have been fortunate to win a lot of championships and to have people think in that mindset [that 2011 was a fluke], but it's a tough world.

"You have to earn everything that you get and things don't last forever. We are not counting on our history and the five straight to make us be a shoe-in for this year. It's really about going out there and earning it. I think that what we have done on the track over the summer months here has proven to people that we are a legitimate threat. Now it's time to go out there and get to work."