After winning a NASCAR-record five consecutive championships from 2005-10, Jimmie Johnson is still in search of title No. 6 -- which, to him, feels like an "eternity."
Two races into this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson has positioned himself well to complete what he describes is his personal championship six-pack.
He opened the playoffs with a hard-fought fifth-place finish at Chicagoland Speedway where he had to overcome assorted mishaps on pit road. Johnson followed that with a fourth-place finish last week at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and is third in the standings heading into this weekend.
Although he's reeled off consecutive top-fives, Johnson has actually lost ground in the standings. This is because the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have finished first and second each of the last two weeks, putting him 18 points behind Kenseth and four in arrears of Busch.
It's similar to what happened to Johnson a year ago when he posted two straight runner-ups and a fourth in the first three Chase races, yet still trailed championship leader Brad Keselowski. Keselowski sandwiched a pair of victories around a sixth-place finish.
The consistency of Kenseth, Busch and Johnson has allowed them to noticeably separate themselves from the rest of the Chase field. Despite the appearance of it being a three-man fight for the title, Johnson isn't ready to concede anything with eight weeks still to go.
"I mean it's easy to look at it that way, but I'm not putting my guard down," Johnson said Friday at Dover International Speedway. "We still have Talladega and a lot of these tracks can take out multiple cars. You have that risk here if something happens you usually take a car or two with you.
"I'm certainly looking forward and there are only two guys that I'm paying attention to right now, so in that mindset, sure you can call it a three-man race. But it's still way too early to count many out yet."
Unlike last year when Hendrick Motorsports was the dominant force in the garage, JGR has asserted itself as the superior team this season. Kenseth and Busch have made 11 combined trips to Victory Lane while Hendrick has won six races (Johnson having four of those with Kasey Kahne accounting for the other two.)
The discrepancy between JGR and Hendrick has not gone unnoticed by Johnson.
"When you peak is very important in our season and I think that the No. 20 (Kenseth) and the No. 18 (Busch) are really coming to the top of their game right now at this point of the year which is good for them," Johnson said. "There is still racing left so I hope this is wrong, but so far our peak was probably about the third mark of the year. I feel like we are trending back up with our two top fives and heading in the right direction, but time will tell how high we rise and where we get to.
"(JGR) have always had good equipment and they have always had fast cars. I really feel like Matt and the relationship that he and his crew chief have and what they have been able to bring to the table has helped elevate Joe Gibbs the next level."
One advantage Johnson would seem to hold this weekend is how strong he has historically ran at Dover. The high-banked one-mile oval is one of his best -- his seven victories have him tied with Richard Petty and Bobby Allison for most all-time.
"Excited to be here, it's obviously a great race track for the No. 48 team," Johnson said. "Good time in the year for us to come to a strong track. We will just kind of see what happens."