Despite leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points race nearly all season, Kevin Harvick has been telling anyone who would listen that reigning champion Jimmie Johnson remained the driver to beat for this year's Cup title.
Now, NASCAR's version of the playoffs, its 10-race Chase for the Cup, is about to get underway and while Harvick's stance continues to have merit, there's a feeling in NASCAR circles that this might be the year Johnson is toppled as the best in stock-car racing's premier series after having won an unprecedented four consecutive championships.
"It's hard to honestly pick one or two guys that anyone can say are truly the clear-cut favorites," said two-time champion Tony Stewart, one of the 12 drivers in the playoff, ahead of Sunday's Chase opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, a 1.1-mile oval in Loudon, N.H.
In addition to Harvick, Johnson and Stewart, this year's Chase drivers are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, his older brother Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Jeff Gordon, Carl Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Clint Bowyer.
The Chase drivers had their points reset to 5,000 to start the playoff, and drivers who won races during the first 26 races of the season were awarded 10 bonus points for each victory. So Hamlin, with a series-high six wins, starts with 5,060 points while Johnson, with five wins, opens the Chase with 5,050. Harvick and Kyle Busch are next with 5,030 points because they each won three races.
Even if Stewart is right and the Chase starts without a clear-cut favorite, anyone who expects Johnson to fail in his quest for a remarkable fifth consecutive title does so at their own risk.
Throughout the last four years, Johnson has shown an uncanny ability to keep his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet in or near the lead during the Chase, and he is allied with perhaps the best crew chief in the business, Chad Knaus.
To hear Johnson tell it, there is no reason why they can't do it again. Others agree; Johnson is the favorite to win the Chase again at odds of 5-2, according to the sports betting website Bodog.com
"People can draw conclusions however they want, and I've never been one to play into any of that stuff," Johnson said after last weekend's race in Richmond, Va., where the El Cajon native finished third.
"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," Johnson said. "I'm just more concerned about going out and getting the job done."
Harvick, leading a resurgence of the Richard Childress Racing team this season, is among the other favorites, as are Hamlin and Kyle Busch of Joe Gibbs Racing, who finished first and second, respectively, last weekend in Richmond.
But Burton, Kurt Busch and Gordon are among those with the most career wins at New Hampshire, and if they do well again Sunday it could mix up the Chase standings at the outset.
The Chase then moves to Dover, Del.; the fourth race is at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana on Oct. 10, and the playoff ends Nov. 21 at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida.