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Jimmie Johnson's march to a sixth title will begin at New Hampshire

The scene was oh-so precious. Here was Jimmie Johnson, the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion, carrying his 14-month-old daughter, Genevieve Marie, in his arms as he strolled through the garage at Chicagoland Speedway last Monday morning before the start of the first race of the Chase. Once dad and daughter reached the entrance to pit road, Johnson put his baby girl down. She promptly grabbed his left index finger and started to waddle, slowly and with a wide-eyed smile, toward the No. 48 Chevy that was parked about a football field away.

Cameras flashed. Rival drivers, leaning against their cars, stared. Under a blue-gray sky, these were the first steps that little Genevieve had ever taken on a racetrack, and it made Johnson's heart melt.

"This might be the coolest thing I've ever seen," Johnson said softly as he gazed at his daughter. "Amazing how quickly she's grown."

Walking and talking with Johnson and his wife, Chandra, in the moments before the start of the 2011 Chase, I was really struck by one thing: The reigning champ was as relaxed as ever, exuding a calm confidence that only the elite athletes possess.

I've got a strong hunch that I'll be writing about this subject at length in this space -- and in the magazine -- over the next two-and-half months, but I firmly believe Johnson's greatest strength isn't his hand-eye-foot coordination or his brazenness behind the wheel, but rather that gray matter that exists between his ears. As I watched Johnson playfully put his daughter into the cockpit of his car just minutes before the green flag waved, it was clear that he was about as nervous as, say, Secretariat approaching the starting gate.

And then, after the engines fired, J.J. did his thing, calmly and ruthlessly driving from 12th to seize the lead about midway through the race. Though Johnson ran out of gas on the final lap in a race that devolved into a game of fuel mileage -- and, by his own admission, stretching fuel mileage is Johnson's greatest weakness as a driver -- he still finished 10th.

Most impressive, though, Johnson showed throughout the afternoon that he had one of the two dominant cars at Chicagoland (the other belonged to Tony Stewart). To me, this suggests Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, will be the duo to beat for the title this autumn. (Check out my story in the magazine this week for more on this.)

Along with Mr. Five-Time, here are four other drivers who I think will be among the contenders to take the checkers on Sunday in New Hampshire in Chase race No. 2.

1. Tony Stewart

Stewart made a big statement by winning on Monday at Chicagoland. It was his first victory of the season, but could it portend big things, especially since four of the last nine races of the season will take place on 1.5-mile tracks like Chicagoland.

Can Stewart back up that win with another strong run on Sunday? I think he can. He finished second at Loudon in July -- right behind teammate Ryan Newman -- and he has two career victories there. Look for Stewart to lead laps in New Hampshire.

2. Kevin Harvick

On Sunday, Harvick will be piloting the same chassis that he drove to Victory Lane at both Martinsville and Richmond this season. The current points leader, Harvick finished second at Chicagoland eight days after winning at Richmond. So, without question, this team is hot.

Yet it's also the most baffling team in NASCAR. After Harvick won three of the first 12 races of the season, we at SI were poised to do a feature on him. But Harvick faded over the summer months and, virtually week after week, became a mid-pack driver. As recently as three weeks ago, I thought Harvick's chances of winning the title could be summed up with one word: zero.

But here he is, sitting atop the standings. In 21 career starts at New Hampshire, Harvick's average finish is 14.2. Given his current momentum and the equipment he'll have on Sunday, I'd be surprised if he didn't wind up in the top five.

3. Carl Edwards

Edwards led 39 laps at Chicagoland and finished with a solid fourth-place finish. I still think this could be a dangerous team in the Chase. I talked briefly with Edwards after Monday's race.

"We got what we needed and we just have to keep getting better," he said. "It's just so difficult. The competition is so good."

Loudon is one of Edwards' weaker tracks on the Chase schedule. He hasn't won there in 14 career starts. So if he can pull out a top-five on Sunday -- and I think he will -- then it would be a moral victory for the No. 99 team.

4. Brad Keselowski

Keselowski is the biggest X-factor in the Chase. No one has scored more points than the No. 2 team over the last seven races, and every week during that stretch he's seemed capable of taking the checkered flag. He finished fifth at Chicagoland.

In four career starts at Loudon, Keselowski's average finish is only 21.2. But career stats really don't mean much with Keselowski, who is enjoying a breakout season. It says here he'll be in the lead pack as the laps wind down on Sunday.

My pick to win: Jimmie Johnson. He won at Loudon last summer and I think he'll start to take control of the Chase around 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday.

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