Jimmie Johnson is clear title favorite, despite history indicating otherwise

Jared Wickerham

With four wins and unmatched consistency, Johnson has established himself as the championship frontrunner. But history indicates a sixth NASCAR title is no sure thing.

A quick glance at the Sprint Cup standings speaks volumes.

Heading into the last off weekend of the year for NASCAR's premiere series, Jimmie Johnson holds a commanding 58-point lead over second-place Clint Bowyer. He also is tied for most wins (four), leads all drivers in top 10s (13) and average finish (8.8), and is second in laps led (1,020) and top fives (eight).

Were it not for poor execution on the track and in the pits, Johnson's numbers would be even more imposing. As he and his No. 48 team let potential victories slip away at Dover, Michigan, Kentucky and New Hampshire.

Although there are still seven races remaining before the start of the Chase in addition to the 10 playoff races, by all measures it feels as if Johnson is set to speed away with his sixth Sprint Cup championship.

"Right now I think it's the 48's to lose," Jeff Gordon said last weekend at New Hampshire. "They've been so strong and because they've won five championships, you don't expect them to go away anytime soon and you don't expect them to lose that momentum when the Chase starts."

History, however, suggests otherwise.

In the nine years that the Chase has been used to determine the champion, only once has the driver who amassed the most points during the regular season gone on to win the championship. That was Tony Stewart, who accomplished the feat in 2005.

And Stewart provides another example of why it's not a good idea to assume this year's title fight will be a decided knockout for Johnson.

In 2011 he was just average early during the opening 26 races, going winless and sneaking into the Chase by a slim seven-point margin. But when the playoffs commenced at Chicagoland, Stewart transformed into Superman. And in the following 10 weeks the owner/driver visited Victory Lane five times and in dogged fashion, won his third championship in a tiebreaker over Carl Edwards.

It's a lesson Stewart reminded everyone of when asked if title No. 6 for Johnson was a foregone conclusion.

"I wouldn't be putting anybody's name on the trophy yet," he said at New Hampshire. "It's way too early for that. There are a lot of organizations that can get things going before the Chase and there are the same amount of organizations on top of that that can get something going during the Chase as we saw in 2011."

Johnson's dominance has also masked how well some other drivers are performing as of late.

No driver has been more consistent in the last two months than Kevin Harvick, who hasn't finished outside the top 10 in nine races. In that span, which included a win at Charlotte, he has outscored Johnson in points 346 to 313.

The knock on Harvick, of course, centers on what's happening to him away from the track and whether it will prove to be a distraction. As it was last week when he confirmed he and sponsor Budweiser are moving to Stewart-Haas Racing at the end of the year.

But his current team, Richard Childress Racing, has known since November Harvick would be gone at the end of 2013. And each party made a commitment that they would end their relationship strong and remain focused on winning.

"Those guys on the (No. 29) team, they don't care about the politics of the sport, they just want to win races," he said. "They like spraying beer in Victory Lane and as a group we're going to do that until we get to [the season finale at] Homestead and we'll start working on the future plans when that race is over."

Then there is the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch. The two have combined for six victories and both are solidly in the Chase. And the engine issues that handicapped the team early this year have seemingly have been resolved.

Also don't discount Bowyer, who finished runner-up in last year's championship and again finds himself second -- albeit without a win.

Each of these four drivers has shown they are capable of being a thorn in the side of the 48 team and proficient enough to snatch away the championship trophy which many have already stenciled Johnson's name on.

It's a fact not lost on the series points leader.

"Right now we have a big points lead, but that all goes away when the Chase gets here and that changes the game," Johnson said. "Not only that aspect, but we still have a few months before the Chase starts and we know how fast things can change in the garage area and the speed that an organization may have might not be there two months from now."

Point taken. And history suggests this thinking is correct.

But to think he won't play a prominent role in deciding this year's championship is foolish, because Johnson has already cemented himself as the consensus favorite. Whether that equates to another championship remains to be seen.

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