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Head2Head: Is Johnson still the guy to beat for the Cup title?

March 28, 2011, ,

Jimmie Johnson has been unbeatable when it matters the past five seasons. But the defending Cup Series champion is winless this far in 2011, and he lost the lead and eventual victory to Kevin Harvick on the last lap of the Auto Club 400 at Fontana last weekend.

Is Jimmie Johnson still the man to beat for the Sprint Cup Series title?


An interesting statistic: After five races in 2010, Jimmie Johnson was third in the Cup Standings, 14 points behind then-leader Kevin Harvick. After five races this season, Johnson sits fifth in the standings, and again -- 14 points off the lead.

Johnson's three top-five and top-10 finishes are identical as well (minus three wins, however). Yes, the points system has changed. Yes, new drivers are showing promise. Yes, the gap may be closing on the No. 48 and the rest of the field. But rest assured -- there still remains a gap.

Like the past five years, this season will ebb and flow like it always has, with plenty of up and down moments for drivers and their teams. No one behind a wheel in the Cup Series is immune from unfortunate circumstances. But that's what makes Jimmie and team the favorites.

When you can roll with the punches, remain calm under pressure and use those character traits to persevere no matter what is thrown your way, well now, that makes you the favorite. When you can stay in contention all season and enter the final race of the season and deliver the results needed to claim yet another title, that makes you the favorite. The Jimmie Show: Never too high, never too low. It's a recipe for success in a sport that can draw the worst out of you when success demands your best.

Until someone besides Johnson hoists that trophy after Homestead, five years of cool, calm perseverance should be all anyone needs to call Johnson the favorite.

Chris Stanfield, NASCAR.COM

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Picking against Jimmie Johnson to win the Sprint Cup Series title has proven to be a foolish bet the past five seasons. But his vulnerability last season has only carried into this one, and the time is right for ol' Five Time to be unseated.

After five races in 2010, Johnson had won three times. As of right now, he is 0-for-2011 and hasn't been to Victory Lane in 13 races. The longest he has ever gone without a win in his Cup career is 19 races spanning the end of his rookie season and the start of his sophomore one.

Which brings us to the end of Sunday's race at Auto Club Speedway. Johnson slowly stalked the leader, as we've seen him do so many times. He made his way into the lead in the closing laps, again as we've seen repeatedly. What we haven't seen is what happened next.

Kevin Harvick went right past him. There was a time not so long ago when Johnson leading a race with fewer than five laps to go was essentially a sign to the rest of the field they were racing for second.

Now? Johnson's still got it, don't get me wrong. But the mental strength and mind games that worked so clearly on Denny Hamlin last year might not be quite powerful enough to shut down the other 41 cars in the field.

And that leaves him vulnerable to those coming for his spot on the Homestead-Miami Speedway stage.

Jill Erwin, NASCAR.COM

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

Is Johnson still the guy to beat for the Cup Series title until someone does just that? Chris Stanfield and Jill Erwin have their thoughts; read theirs and weigh in with yours in the comments below. And don't forget to vote for who you agree with more in the poll at the right.