Johnson somewhat overlooked as Chase begins

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - This is the time of season when Jimmie Johnson thrives, and his Hendrick Motorsports team smooths out any chinks in its seemingly indestructible armor.

And with five wins this season and the second seed in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, it’s not as though there have been too many bumps in the road.

Then why is the four-time defending champion an afterthought as NASCAR prepares for Sunday’s Chase opener at New Hampshire? Any talk that should be centered on Johnson’s bid for a fifth consecutive title seems to be secondary to the speculation as to who will be the driver to finally end his reign.

Even his fellow competitors are wondering if this is the year Johnson will be beaten.

“Superman has not lost his cape, but it’s shorter than it was in years past,” said Clint Bowyer, who just earned his Chase berth Saturday night at Richmond. “Hopefully we’ll all be able to give him a run for his money this year.”

The overruling thought has always been that the championship is Johnson’s to lose, and he’s done very little to give any indication that he won’t make a realistic run at becoming the only active driver with five titles. He’s crossed winning at Bristol and winning on a road-course off his to-do list this season, and despite an uncharacteristic four DNFs this year _ two of them came in a three-race span _ he still knocked down 14 top-10 finishes through 26 races.

He went bumper-to-bumper with Kevin Harvick, who built an impressive points lead during the “regular season,” and was tied with Denny Hamlin for the top seed in the Chase until Hamlin surged ahead with his series-best sixth win of the year Saturday night at Richmond.

What did Johnson do? He grabbed his second straight third-place finish to roll into New Hampshire running very well.

Yet he still can’t shake the perception that he’s vulnerable this season.

“People can draw conclusions however they want, and I’ve never been one to play into any of that stuff,” Johnson said.

He learned that lesson in 2005, when he went battled Tony Stewart for the championship. He was mathematically in contention to win in the season finale at Homestead, but a blown tire knocked him out of the race, ending his title hopes with a thud after a tense 10 weeks that nearly destroyed his working relationship with crew chief Chad Knaus.

In the years since, Johnson has focused only on his program and doing what he needs to do on the track. By letting it play out that way, Johnson has collected the last four titles.

“If guys think we are vulnerable, it’s my job to show up at Loudon, qualify on the pole and win the race,” he said. “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 damn job done.

“With two good runs going into the Chase, my guys are ready, I’m ready. We have got our mojo back.”

That confidence should send shivers through the garage, but it so far has not.

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