Brant James
Wednesday September 16th, 2009

Jimmie Johnson has been here before, as the perennial contender denied, the champion, and twice the defender. Now the Sprint Cup champion begins what would be a historic defense, a quest for a fourth consecutive title, a feat unprecedented in NASCAR and most of major motorsports. Former Champ Car dominator Sebastien Bourdais comprises the club in North America right now.

But this time it may be harder than ever before for Johnson, and not because of burnout or malaise or any of the other little mitigating factors that tear down dynasties. Johnson faces arguably the best Chase for the Championship field ever assembled when the 10-race playoffs begin on Sunday at Loudon, N.H. That's not to say he's outmanned. But he's surrounded.

Jimmie Johnson: 33 years, 364 days The Field: 33 years, 299 days (average)

Jimmie Johnson: As himself

The Field: Mark Martin, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin, Kasey Kahne, Brian Vickers, Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Juan Pablo Montoya, Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Ryan Newman

Jimmie Johnson: Three (consecutively)

The Field: Seven (Tony Stewart, 2002, 2005); Kurt Busch (2004); Jeff Gordon (1995, 1997-98, 2001)

Jimmie Johnson: Not this time. After winning, the last two Richmond fall races to propel himself into the Chase, Johnson is flat-footed with an 11th-place finish. That followed a 36th-place result at Atlanta the previous week. So frustrated was the normally staid Johnson at Richmond on Saturday night that he actually uttered two profanities broadcast live on national cable television, albeit a high-on-the-dial one where chances are few that viewers were offended.

But he was feeling more chipper on Tuesday.

"I feel good about [the momentum]," he said. "We've been able to perform at tracks that weren't necessarily our best. We've been running as we had hoped at tracks that were good for us. I really think some of the best tracks over the course of the year are at the start and the end of the season, so with the Chase just showing up, I know we've got really good tracks ahead of us. And that helps to get on the roll that we've been able to do the last few years and we'll just see what happens."

The Field: Hamlin finally won at his home track in Richmond and has two victories or top-10 finishes in each of his last six races. Fifth in points but just 20 points back as the Chase begins, Hamlin may be at the intersection of talent, maturity, motivation and opportunity necessary to make a deep run at a first championship.

Stewart, the points leader for much of the season, has been slumping recently, but figures to be a threat throughout. And what of Gordon, somehow having a sneaky run-up to the Chase? He has finished outside the top 10 just three times in the last 13 races, with six top-fives and four runnerup finishes during that span.

Jimmie Johnson: Johnson has nearly twice as many wins (43) as any other Sprint Cup driver since his first full season in 2002, and has become a dervish in the late season -- which made the implementation of the Chase fairly well a boon for his career.

At 33-plus-plus-plus, with his team mostly intact from his previous runs and Chad Knaus -- the consensus pick as the best crew chief in the sport -- atop his pit box, Johnson may not have reached his zenith. And how many among us can say that at 33-plus-plus-plus?

The Field: Interesting bunch. Maybe the best Chase field ever, certainly the most compelling, and together perhaps the most wide-open. Consider: the group is comprised of three former series champions, arguably the two best drivers of their generation, one of the best in series history never to win a title (leads the standings at age 50), four of the series' top young stars (sorry Kyle Busch), a man attempting to become the first to win championships in NASCAR's top three series, a former title contender reclaiming his destiny and a former Indianapolis 500-winner and Formula One driver who made the transition to Sprint Cup's elite in three years.

Jimmie Johnson: He is the master of the 10 races that matter most, with a series-best 14 wins. With Matt Kenseth dropping from 12th to 14th place and losing his playoff berth at Richmond, Johnson is the only driver to qualify for all six Chases.

The Field: Kurt Busch won the first Chase and Stewart the second before the Johnson Era became officially recognized with a first title. Carl Edwards showed great postseason promise by winning three of the final four races of the 2008 season and making a mad dash at Johnson -- eventually finishing second by 69 points -- but is winless this season and has a broken foot. Both must sting.

Jimmie Johnson: Hendrick Motorsports teammates Gordon and Martin are also contending for the Chase. That's a positive in that three extremely motivated teams operating at a high level will contribute to a knowledge base that can benefit them all. It's a negative in that although they'll work together -- within reason -- to further the collective, Johnson isn't likely to receive many courteous overtures from teammates also trying to win a title.

The Field: Hamlin is on his own with Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch a surprise non-qualifier. Stewart and Newman landed the entirety of Stewart Haas Racing in the Chase. Edwards and Biffle represent Roush Fenway. Everyone is flying solo. And again, maybe that's not a bad thing. A little help from a teammate could be very helpful in certain situations. And drivers tend not to forget the slate.

Jimmie Johnson: Wins his fourth title in a row. The field: 2. Mark Martin 3. Jeff Gordon 4. Tony Stewart 5. Denny Hamlin 6. Juan Pablo Montoya 7. Greg Biffle 8. Kasey Kahne 9. Carl Edwards 10. Ryan Newman 11. Kurt Busch 12. Brian Vickers

GALLERY: NASCAR'S 2009 CHASE FIELD

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