Johnson is down, not out
FONTANA, Calif. - While Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards are 1-2 in the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and building strong cases for starting the Chase for the Championship as the favorites, there is a shadow looming behind them.
Jimmie Johnson is never far from their minds.
"I've always been worried about Jimmie Johnson," Busch said. "I take him as being probably the best driver on the circuit. You never know what he can come up with during a race or what him and [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] can come up with in their cars to make it fast."
Edward echoed his chief rival, saying, "We talked about it this week, my trainer and I. We were kind of going over the guys that were really going to be tough and it goes without saying, Jimmie Johnson has proven that he can do it when it matters. I think that's one of the guys you're going to have to beat. You're going to have to beat Jimmie to be the champion."
While Busch has been the hottest driver this season, leading the points and winning eight races, and Edwards has been close behind with six wins, Johnson has had a so-so season - for him.
The Hendrick Motorsports star is a distant fourth in the points and has just two wins and 12 top-10 finishes heading into tonight's Pepsi 500 at Auto Club Speedway.
But nobody is selling Johnson short with two races left until the start of the 12-man, 10-race Chase - least of all Johnson himself.
Despite struggling with the big, bulky and still-new Car of Tomorrow at times this season - particularly on the 1 1/2- and 2-mile ovals - Johnson said the No. 48 team is figuring out things, perhaps just at the right time.
"We looked at the big tracks and know that's where we've been behind, and we've been working hard to catch up," said defending race champion Johnson, who will start from the pole. "I think we're in the right spot.
"We're on par with those guys. This week will be a better tale of it, and then as we get on those tracks in the Chase we'll certainly know where we stack up to them . . . I feel like we're fine on the short tracks, it's just the mile-and-a-half stuff that we need to be a little stronger at to really put a fight up for these guys.
"I think we're there; I really do. You would always like to be ahead and that's why we're still testing and doing all we can. We should be a factor in this thing."
Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon, one of Johnson's teammates, has had some of the same struggles this season. He's winless, ninth in the points and still fighting for a spot in the Chase.
But Gordon, who will start third, also is confident that he and Johnson and new teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. can make things interesting for Busch and Edwards in the Chase.
"That's the thing about the new format with the Chase is all it takes is two bad races . . . and all of the sudden you're chasing," Gordon said.
Right now, the spotlight belongs on Edwards, who has won three of the last four races, and Busch, who has finished second twice in a row after winning three weeks ago.
"Those guys seem to have the chemistry, they seem to have the momentum and they have their cars and the talent to really pull it off," Gordon said. "Those are definitely the guys to beat and I'll be surprised if one of them don't win it."
Still, if he had to make a forecast, Gordon said he would pick Johnson to give Busch and Edwards the strongest competition or the title.
"Jimmie's got a good shot," Gordon said. "That team they're dangerous because they can turn things around. They're a two-time champ and they've got a lot of confidence, even though those guys they've been getting beat by the 99 [Edwards] and the 18 [Busch]. I don't think they ever count themselves out."