Despite leading the Sprint Cup points race nearly all season, Kevin Harvick has been telling anyone who would listen that reigning champion Jimmie Johnson remained the driver to beat for this year's Cup title. Now, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, its 10-race Chase for the Championship, is about to begin. While Harvick's stance continues to have merit, there's a feeling in NASCAR circles that this might be the year Johnson is toppled as the best in stock-car racing's premier series after having won an unprecedented four consecutive championships.
"It's hard to honestly pick one or two guys that anyone can say are truly the clear-cut favorites," said two-time champion Tony Stewart, one of the 12 drivers in the playoff, ahead of Sunday's Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a 1.1-mile oval in Loudon, N.H.
The Chase drivers had their points reset to 5,000 to start the playoff, and drivers who won during the first 26 races of the season were awarded 10 bonus points for each victory. So Hamlin, with a series-high six wins, starts with 5,060 points while Johnson, with five wins, opens the Chase with 5,050. Harvick and Kyle Busch are next with 5,030 points.
Even if Stewart is right and the Chase starts without a clear-cut favorite, anyone who expects Johnson to fail in his quest for a remarkable fifth consecutive title does so at their own risk.
The past four years, Johnson has shown an uncanny ability to keep his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in or near the lead during the Chase, and he is allied with perhaps the best crew chief in the business, Chad Knaus.
To hear Johnson tell it, there is no reason they can't do it again. Others agree; Johnson is the favorite to win the Chase at odds of 5-2, according to Bodog.com, a sports betting website.
"People can draw conclusions however they want, and I've never been one to play into any of that stuff," Johnson said after last weekend's race in Richmond, Va., where he finished third.
"I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are for the championship," Johnson said. "I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the job done."
Harvick, leading a resurgence of the Richard Childress Racing team this season, is among the other favorites, as are Hamlin and Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, who finished first and second, respectively, last weekend in Richmond.
But Burton, Kurt Busch and Jeff Gordon are among those with the most career wins at New Hampshire, and if they do well again Sunday, it could mix up the Chase standings at the outset.
The Chase moves to Dover, Del., the following week and concludes Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I look at the 12 guys being the closest competitive-wise," Greg Biffle told the Boston Globe.
"Man, it is a really close Chase, probably one of the closest."
. fast facts
Sprint Cup points
With 10 races to go. Only these drivers are eligible in the Chase for the Championship.
Driver Pts. Back
Denny Hamlin 5,060—
Jimmie Johnson 5,050 10
Kevin Harvick 5,030 30
Kyle Busch 5,030 30
Kurt Busch 5,020 40
Tony Stewart 5,010 50
Greg Biffle 5,010 50
Carl Edwards 5,000 60
Jeff Burton 5,000 60
Matt Kenseth 5,000 60
Jeff Gordon 5,000 60
Clint Bowyer 5,000 60
Sylvania 300, 1 p.m. Sunday, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Loudon TV: ESPN
"I'm not concerned about what people think of my race team and where I'm at and what kind of threat we are for the championship. I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the job done."
Jimmie Johnson, four-time Sprint Cup champ