He's not quite the same, not yet anyway.
Just look at how Jimmie Johnson performed last Sunday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the track he used to ruthlessly dominate like no other on the Sprint Cup circuit. Between 2003 and '06, Johnson won five times at Charlotte and, in eight total starts over that stretch, finished no worse than third. Last year he also impressed at the 1.5-mile oval, finishing third in the fall race during the Chase. That night in the Queen City, in fact, Johnson survived a spin, which proved to be one of the key moments in his march to his unprecedented fifth straight Cup championship.
But last Sunday Johnson, while not exactly irrelevant for most of the event, didn't run with the leaders. He could never fine-tune the handling on his No. 48 Chevy to the point where he felt fully comfortable. He failed to lead a single lap and then, late in the race, blew an engine. He finished 28th.
So 12 events into the season, Johnson is third in the standings, but he's not flashing the kind of consistency or the raw speed that have been his hallmarks for the past five years. "We've had a lot of things go our way over the years," Johnson said after lifting himself out of his car on Sunday. "The last couple weeks -- they haven't gone our way."
It says here, though, that Johnson's fortunes will change this Sunday at Kansas Speedway. In nine career starts at the 1.5-mile oval, Johnson has only one win. But look closer at his statistics. Not only did he finish second here last year, but also, according to NASCAR's loop statistics, Johnson also leads all drivers since 2005 at Kansas in overall speed, speed in traffic, and speed early and late in runs. In other words, in the last five years, no one has been consistently faster at Kansas than Johnson and the No. 48 team.
Johnson is my pick to win at the track on the prairie on Sunday. Here are four other drivers I'll be watching when the green flag flies at Kansas, which, for many reasons, is my favorite track on the Sprint Cup circuit (a column for another day):
1. Carl Edwards
As NASCAR approaches the midpoint of the regular season, it's clear that Edwards -- not Johnson -- is the driver to beat for the championship. How fast has Edwards been this season? He has more top-5 finishes (six) and top-10s (nine) than any other driver. Barring a major collapse this summer, he'll win the regular season points title in a snoozer.
He should be formidable at Kansas, which Edwards, a native of Columbia, Mo., considers his home NASCAR track. In seven starts in the Jayhawk State, he's won twice, including last year's race during the Chase. The battle between Edwards and Johnson on Sunday will be a microcosm for the championship that will play out over the next six months.
2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Oh, how close Earnhardt came to ending his 105-race winless streak last Sunday. Holding the lead as he charged toward the checkers on the final lap, Earnhardt ran out of gas less than a mile from the finish line and came in seventh. But still, it was an impressive run for a driver who has been buried in the standings for the better part of two years.
Now fourth in the points, Earnhardt is entering a critical stretch of his season. For years, he's struggled in June, July and August. But he gets a break on Sunday because this is the first time the Cup drivers have competed at Kansas in June. Though Earnhardt hasn't finished higher than 22nd in his last two starts at Kansas, that's a bit deceiving, because he led 41 laps at the track in 2009 before blowing an engine. Given how he ran last week, a top-10 on Sunday -- perhaps even a top-5 -- seems within the grasp of the No. 88 team.
3. Kevin Harvick
After taking the checkered flag at Charlotte, Harvick now has more wins (three) than any other Cup driver, which means he already has 30 bonus points that he'll carry into the Chase. In fact, you've got to admire the attacking philosophy of the No. 29 team, the way Harvick and crew chief Gil Martin have aggressively gone after wins, gambling on both setups and race strategy. So far, it's paid off well for the duo.
In 10 career starts at Kansas, Harvick's average finish is only 14.6. Expect Martin to take wild swings at their setup during practice sessions and -- who knows? -- he may just hit on something. After all, so far in 2011 he's proving to have the magic touch.
4. Greg Biffle
Biffle is as good as any driver in the series on 1.5-mile tracks. He especially likes Kansas, which, statistically, is Biffle's best track on the Cup schedule. In nine career starts at the Heartland track, Biffle has two wins and an average finish of 8.1.
All of which makes this an important race for the No. 16 team. Currently 11th in the standings and living on the Chase bubble, Biffle needs to perform well at the tracks where he typically runs strong. He only has one top-5 run so far in 2011; he should add to that number on Sunday.