Johnson's five-peat hopes in jeopardy as Chase heads to Dover

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The expression was a mixture of frustration, bewilderment and resignation. Though in a few minutes Johnson would climb out of his car and tell reporters he wasn't out of the championship hunt, that was not the optimistic vibe I picked up on as he sat in his car. To me, it was as if the four-time champion sensed this moment was the end of something. And it probably was.

As I wrote in the magazine this week, Johnson's troubles at Loudon most likely doomed his shot at winning an unprecedented fifth-straight Sprint Cup title. He fell from second to seventh in the standings and now trails Chase leader Denny Hamlin by 92 points. Can Johnson make up that much ground? He's done it before -- in 2007 he finished 39th at Loudon and still won the championship -- but I don't see it happening in 2010. Why? Because the Chase field is deeper than at any point in the Chase era, which began in 2004. It's my belief that some driver will finish every race inside the top-15 to wrest the title from Johnson.

Johnson, naturally, will be one of five drivers to keep a close eye on Sunday at Dover in Chase race No. 2.

1. Jimmie Johnson

Dover has been a good track for the No. 48 team. Johnson has won two of the last three races at the Monster Mile and, in 17 career starts, has an average finish of 10.2. It's been said often that the Chase schedule sets up better for Johnson than any other driver because he flourishes on every track in the playoffs, so if anyone can make up a 92-point deficit, it's him. But as Johnson admitted to me on Sunday in New Hampshire, the Chase is no longer in his control. He'll need other drivers -- notably Hamlin -- to struggle in the coming weeks to have any shot at being a factor in the season-finale at Homestead.

2. Denny Hamlin

Back in February, I was hanging out with Hamlin in Charlotte for a preseason feature than ran in SI when we started talking about the tracks in the Chase. "Dover has given me trouble for a long time," he said. "That's a race I'll be circling."

The next four weeks are key for Hamlin because if he can survive Dover, Kansas, Fontana and Charlotte and be in first or second in the standings, he will be very, very hard to beat. The last five tracks in the Chase are among his best on the schedule, and Hamlin has a history of finishing the season strong.

Hamlin came in fourth at Dover earlier this year, which tied his best finish at the one-mile banked oval. In nine starts at the Monster Mile, his average finish is 22.8. If he can simply author a top-10 run on Sunday, it will be moral victory for the No. 11 team -- and, perhaps, a telling sign that Hamlin could be on his way to his first career championship.

3. Kurt Busch

Busch's game plan for the Chase is a lot like Hamlin's. Busch, the 2004 champion who is currently fifth in the standings after his 13th-place run at New Hampshire, feels his two worst tracks in the playoffs are the first two: New Hampshire and Dover. Busch, like Hamlin, would love to escape Sunday with a top-10 and then move on to Kansas.

Can he do it? In 20 starts at Dover his career average finish is only 19.6. He was 19th earlier this year, and when I spoke to him a few weeks ago at length about the Chase, he was extremely concerned about his ability to run with the leaders at Dover. Sunday, no doubt, will be a big test for the No. 2 team, which is still my pick to win the championship.

4. Tony Stewart

Late on Sunday afternoon Stewart said all the right things to the television cameras after he had run out of fuel just short of the finish line at New Hampshire: That he was determined to go for the win, that the beauty of racing is that you never know what's going to happen -- even on the final lap -- and that he'll be back to fight for the win next week.

Yet once the cameras turned away and moved to another driver, Stewart's demeanor changed. His answers became clipped and the frustration he felt was obvious. You couldn't blame him. After all, he and crew chief Darien Grubb probably cost themselves any chance of contending for the championship by risking running out of gas. If Stewart had pitted for a splash of gas, he probably would have finished no lower than fifth. As it stands, he wound up 24th and fell to ninth in the championship standings.

Can this team rebound with a good run on Sunday? I think so. Though Dover is far from his favorite track, Stewart has two career wins at the Monster Mile. Plus, even though the results don't show it, this team is as hot as any in NASCAR right now. With a little luck, Stewart would have won two of the last three races and been within striking distance of Hamlin. As it stands, he's left to ponder what might have been.

5. Jeff Gordon

Standing outside of his hauler late on Sunday afternoon at Loudon, Gordon succinctly laid out the best way for his team to win the championship. "Our strength is our consistency," he said. "We haven't won a race this season, but we're as consistent as anyone. We just have to keep having top-5s and top-10s and just see what happens."

Gordon had a solid run at Loudon, finishing sixth. He's certainly capable of stringing together a slew of top-10s, especially considering he's been so good on the intermediate-length tracks this season and five of the last nine races will be held at these 1.5 to 2-mile venues. He should be quietly solid again at Dover, where he came in 11th earlier this season.

My pick for Sunday? Johnson