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LURKING JOHNSON IS POPULAR PICK OF CHASERS

RICHMOND, Va. - Several drivers think Jimmie Johnson is the favorite in the Chase for the Championship, even though no driver in NASCAR's Cup-level history has won four titles in a row.

"I think until somebody dethrones the 48, it's the 48," Matt Kenseth said of Johnson, who has won the past three series titles and was one of four drivers - along with Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon and Denny Hamlin - to lock up his spot in the Chase before Saturday night's race.

"I'd pick them every race of every year until somebody knocks them down," Kenseth said.

Stewart, a two-time series champion and the points leader for much of the season, agrees with the choice of Johnson as favorite, but added: "In this series, things can change so fast in the course of one race. The whole complexion of the season can be changed after one week next week."

For his part, Johnson said the favorite label is unwarranted.

The drivers in the Chase have won a total of 10 series titles, and Johnson finished a disappointing 11th Saturday.

"Right now I'm just not happy with how we ran ... we'll go on and see what happens," he said.

At least one driver said he doesn't see Johnson as the favorite. Asked who the team to beat was, besides his own, Saturday's Rock and Roll 400 winner Hamlin responded quickly: "Us. We're the ones to beat right now."

Mark Martin, a four-time series runnerup, is the new points leader for the 10-race Chase with 5,040. The field is reset at 5,000 each, plus 10 bonus points for each win.

Kyle Busch was shut out of the title hunt because his fifth-place finish wasn't enough to get him into the 12-driver field.

"We did all we can do. We gave a valiant effort and it was a good night," Busch said. "We will live to see another day. We'll go on for the rest of the year."

The final Chase spot went instead to Brian Vickers, who knocked both Busch and Daytona 500 winner Kenseth out of contention with a career-best seventh-place run. He finished eight points ahead of Busch in the tightest Chase buildup since its 2004 inception.

"We picked one heck of a night to have a great car," said Vickers, who had just one top-10 finish in 10 previous Richmond starts.

Kenseth, who along with Johnson were the only drivers to make the Chase in every season, dropped from 12th to 14th in points.

"We've slowly fell back in the points every week, so I can't say I'm very surprised we didn't make it," he said.

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