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Last updateThu, 19 Nov 2015 8pm

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Johnson back in thick of title contention

When Jimmie Johnson was bouncing around traffic like a ping-pong ball en route to a 25th place finish at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sept. 19, many fans thought that the four-time defending champion was going to have more than a little difficulty winning a fifth title.
Surprise.
He’s back with a vengeance. Johnson more than halved a seemingly daunting 92-point deficit the old fashioned way, winning the AAA 400 at Dove International Speedway on Sept. 26, and in the process leading the most laps to score a maximum 195 points. The Dover win vaulted Johnson from seventh to second, his second place finish last Sunday at Kansas moved Johnson back into the lead.                          

Five straight championships is insane. It just doesn’t happen at the top levels of professional sports.  Well ok, there were the NBA’s Boston Celtics, who won 11 championships in 13 years between 1957 and 1969. King Richard Petty won seven championships, but it was over a span of 15 years, from 1964 to 1979. Dale Earnhardt tied  “The King” with seven championships, but it took Earnhardt 14 years. Johnson’s mentor and car owner, Jeff Gordon, is tied with Johnson at the moment with four championships. It took Gordon six years, from 1995 through 2001.  
“He’s the one that set the standard over the last four years and he’s the guy that ultimately we feel we’re going to have to beat in this whole thing,” said current points leader Denny Hamlin.  
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus feel the same way. They are approaching the Chase in the same manner as the past four years, unworried about the ups and downs of a single race. “I’m not concerned with making a statement,” said Johnson in his post race remarks following his win at Dover. “At the end of the day, I’m just concerned  about where I am in the points. A lot of that other stuff, if it’s in your brain,  you’re not thinking about the right things “We’re moving on. We have to go to Kansas and do the job all over again.”
Knaus, asked about the weekend’s controversy involving Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, expressed no interest in whatever mind games might play out as the Chase continues. “We don’t pay a lot of attention to what goes on outside our four walls,” he said. “We worry about our race car, our tool box, and try to make it right.”
Jeff Gordon’s Chase for the Sprint Cup performance thus far is reason enough why this year’s playoff field is the most competitive in the formats history. Over the first two races of this year’s Chase, Gordon has run in the top ten in 90.1 percent of the race laps. He has an average finish position of 8.5.  
Still, Gordon has lost 23 points to points leader Denny Hamlin.  Since Gordon failed to win a race in the 26 race “regular season,” he began the Chase 60 points back. Add them up and it stands at an 83 point deficit.  
2004 Sprint Cup Champion Kurt Busch was the first driver to be crowned champion under the Chase for the Sprint Cup format.  Kurt appeared on the weekly NASCAR teleconference this past Tuesday. Asked how he learned to deal with the pressure of the Chase during his championship run, Busch replied, “It was an amazing 10 weeks.  All different types of scenarios. The excitement level is up at an all-time high. The stress level is at an all-time high. It’s something that I thrive off of. I like the competition, the chance to go out there and beat the best.  It’s just playoff atmosphere. You cam feel it in the air. You’ve got to bring your A game every week.”
Next up: The Pepsi Max 400 at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, CA this Sunday. This race has been crucial to late season momentum building for four-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson. He has won the event for the past three years.
Seven Chase drivers have won races at Auto Club Speedway, Jeff Gordon, and Matt Kenseth have three wins apiece.  Gordon, in fact, won the very first race held at the California track in 1997 en route to his second championship. Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards have one win each.
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