Just when you thought it was safe -- two-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson showed he isn't to be ignored in the 2008 Chase for the Sprint Cup. Because of the three main title contenders this year -- Johnson, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch -- Johnson is the only one with championship hardware.
Sure, Edwards has a Nationwide Series title, but that's nothing compared to the Sprint Cup.
Johnson won the Pepsi 500 in Fontana in dominating fashion Sunday night, while Edwards and Busch had to settle for fifth and sixth place, respectively. With all the talk of late about the budding rivalry between Edwards and Busch, Johnson reminded them, and everyone else, that he's won the last two titles for a reason.
And anyone who thinks Johnson can't join Cale Yarborough as the only Cup drivers to win three consecutive titles is a right fool. Don't forget, last year Johnson wasn't the most dominant driver, but he caught fire in the Chase, won the last four races of the season and hoisted his second Cup trophy at Homestead.
What's to keep him from doing something like that again here in 2008?
I'd like to think Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon are also players in this, given their pedigree, but neither has won a race so far this season. More importantly, Gordon has been too inconsistent -- and if his night goes bad enough at Richmond this Saturday, there's a chance he could miss the Chase altogether.
And you Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans (okay, us Junior fans) -- content yourself with the fact that he made the Chase this year and won a race, because NASCAR's most popular driver isn't winning the title this year. He could still finish the season top-five in points, which is a monumental improvement over last season, but the early-season success has been replaced by crew and driver mistakes. Junior's saving grace is the rest of schedule is mostly run on tracks he performed well at early in the year. Another win could be in the cards, but it looks like 2009 might be a more realistic title hope.
Busch and Edwards might have won 14 of the 25 races run so far this season, whereas Johnson only has three, but we're coming up on the time of year in which Johnson thrives. And any time he's got Chad Knaus on the pit box, I'm not counting him out.
Anyone who does needs to have their head examined. Right along with anyone who really thought Tennessee was the No. 18 team in the country.