As drivers prepare to begin the Chase for the Sprint Cup this weekend, it's worth wondering whether the guy who engraves the names of the winner on the championship trophy remembers how to spell any name other than "Jimmie Johnson."
Johnson, driver of the now-iconic No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, has won the last five championships, a NASCAR record. He is in the field again, entering the Chase in sixth place, but his hold on the cup title may be as tenuous as ever.
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick come into Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday tied for first in the standings after Harvick's win at Richmond on Saturday gave him a share of the lead. Each has four wins this season and a nine-point advantage of Johnson.
Johnson also has to deal with something he largely avoided during his first five championship seasons: a contentious rivalry with another driver. Whereas Kyle is the Busch brother most associate with controversy, older brother Kurt Busch has made it his hobby to bug Johnson this season.
"I know we're in his head," Kurt Busch has said. "[He's got] to learn to race. He's been able to beat guys the last five years just by out-driving them with what he has for equipment. If he wants to switch equipment, let's see what he can do."
Kurt Busch is seventh in the standings, right behind Johnson, bearing down and ready to give J.J. a bump.
Beyond Johnson, Harvick and the Busches, the field includes the majority of the biggest names in the sport. Johnson's teammate, Jeff Gordon, who is now third on the all-time wins list, finished third in the standings and will be looking for his first championship since 2001. Roush Fenway's Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards are fourth and fifth, respectively. (Kenseth was the last driver to win the NASCAR points title before the Chase format began in 2004.) Tony Stewart, the last driver to win the title before Johnson began his record run, is ninth, sandwiched between Ryan Newman and Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is one of the few drivers who can rival Johnson's popularity in the Spring Cup series.
Brad Keselowski is 11th, although he is tied for the second-most wins of any driver in the Chase, with three victories. Denny Hamlin, who had all the momentum heading into last year's chase only to be held of by Johnson, snuck in again in the 12th and final spot.
Johnson might not be the odds-on favorite in 2011. But he's the champ, and he has won a remarkable 19 of 70 Chase races all-time. The postseason is when he traditionally dominates. Eventually, his run has to end.
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