Jimmie Johnson looks on from the grid during qualifying at Bristol Motor… (Jerry Markland / Getty Images )
NASCAR will celebrate a different champion this year, perhaps a driver who hasn't won the Sprint Cup in a while.
Someone like Jimmie Johnson.
For all the hand-wringing in NASCAR Nation about how often Johnson wins, and how that makes the Cup series boring at times, in some ways the five-time champion has not been the series' preeminent driver this year.
Yes, the Californian opens NASCAR's 10-race Chase for the Cup title playoff this week with four victories this year — including the Daytona 500 — and it's true he led the Cup point standings for most of the season.
But Matt Kenseth has five wins and leads the standings after they were reset for the start of the 12-driver Chase. And Kyle Busch, Kenseth's teammate at Joe Gibbs Racing, has four wins as well this year.
Johnson also is limping into the Chase, having finished 28th or worse in his last four races, including a 40th-place finish Saturday night at Richmond (Va.) International Raceway.
And Johnson hasn't been NASCAR's champion for 2 ½ years now, his last title coming in 2010. Tony Stewart won the Cup in 2011 and Brad Keselowski followed as champion last year.
Neither will win the title this year.
Stewart broke his right leg in a racing crash Aug. 5 and is done driving for the year. Keselowski, 16th in the standings after Richmond, didn't qualify for this year's Chase.
Make no mistake, though, Johnson still is a favorite to win his sixth championship when the Chase begins Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval in Joliet, Ill.
Only Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt, who each have seven championships, have won more titles than Johnson.
"We're coming in with our heads high and our shoulders back and we're ready to go," Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief, said before the Richmond race. "We feel very confident."
Besides Johnson, Kenseth and Kyle Busch, the other Chase drivers are Kevin Harvick, Carl Edwards (who won the Richmond race), Joey Logano, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kurt Busch (Kyle's older brother), Kasey Kahne and Martin Truex Jr.
All the Chase drivers — those who finished in the top 10 in the standings and two wild-card drivers — had their points reset to 2,000 for the playoff.
Three bonus points per win also were awarded to the drivers who finished in the top 10, so Kenseth opens the Chase with 2,015 points, Johnson and Kyle Busch have 2,012 and so on.
Kenseth and Kurt Busch won the title in 2003 and 2004, respectively, when both drove for the team now called Roush Fenway Racing.
All the other Chase drivers are seeking their first championship when the season ends Nov. 17 at Homestead-Miami (Fla.) Speedway.
That includes the popular Earnhardt, a former Chicagoland winner whose best points finish was third in 2003, the year before the Chase playoff format was created.
"We've got as good a shot as anybody," Earnhardt said after finishing 13th at Richmond. "We're going to go in there [to the Chase] with a good attitude and work real hard and see what we get."