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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
Updated: September 15, 11:58 PM ET
Jimmie Johnson a marked man in Chase

By Ed Hinton
ESPN.com

Alfred, Lord Tennyson might assess Jimmie Johnson's predicament at the outset of this Chase this way: cannon to the right of him, cannon to the left of him, cannon in front of him.

There's Kevin Harvick, living up mightily to team owner Richard Childress's projection, back in January, that "This is the year to kick Jimmie off that throne. We were close with Kevin last year, but this is the year to do it ... "

Chad Knaus
The wild card in the 2011 Chase? Mr. Chad Knaus, the mastermind behind Jimmie Johnson's five Cup titles.

There's Kyle Busch, having grown up and settled down after several seasons of maturing in fits and starts, seeded first alongside Harvick. They have four wins each.

Most of all there is Johnson's teammate and mentor, seeded third, running well, feeling "rejuvenated" -- uh-oh, Jeff Gordon won four championships when he was young, under the old season-long points system, and he enters this Chase looking stronger, and certainly more enthusiastic, than he ever has for the playoffs.

Even Matt Kenseth, sometimes a straggler into the Chase, is seeded ahead of Johnson, fourth. Johnson is tied with Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman for fifth, so he's in the middle pack.

There's even artillery to the rear of Johnson: Brad Keselowski, a legitimate threat to blast from dead last in the standings, having made it in as a wild card with three wins, equal to Gordon in that column.

So Tennyson might well write off Johnson's charge toward a six-peat. I know I'm tempted to. There are just too many drivers with momentum, with legitimate shots at dethroning JJ.

He has only one race win. An atypical show of temper left him looking bad at Richmond in last Saturday night's threshold race, when he wrecked himself trying to wreck Kurt Busch for payback.

Still, I'll believe Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus can be dethroned for the Sprint Cup championship after -- and only after -- I have seen it happen, after the playoffs are done and somebody else is celebrating at Homestead.

They've had serious threats before -- take Denny Hamlin, just last season.

Cannons to the right (Harvick), to the left (Busch), in front (Gordon) and behind (Keselowski) don't rattle Johnson and Knaus. They don't really listen to the thunder all around them.

"Our viewpoint is just the reality inside of our race team," Johnson said recently. "The reality inside is, we know we've got a very good chance of winning the championship."

The overall reality is that the 48 team has been proven -- time and time and time and time and time again.

The Harvick, Kyle Busch and Keselowski teams have not.

The Gordon team has not been proven under fire in the Chase. The 24 team hasn't won a title since 2001, under the old format, three crew chiefs ago for Gordon.

"We have a road map that's worked in years past," Johnson said. "And we've had to fall on our experience, especially last year, to win the championship."

Remember how Hamlin was all the rage, on a rampage, calling his shots about turning up the burners, keeping it up as late as Texas in November when he grabbed his eighth win of the season with just two races left in the Chase?

Johnson and Knaus seemed as done for as they had since 2005, the last time they lost a championship.

But that eighth win was Hamlin's last. He led the points into the season finale at Homestead, but an early spin cost him the whole thing, and the tempered-steel nerves of Johnson and Knaus prevailed again.

They're behind Harvick and Kyle Busch by nine points heading into the Chase opener at Chicagoland Speedway on Sunday (2 p.m. ET, ESPN). But they've always had more confidence from behind than from ahead. They'd rather be the hunters than the hunted.

Just let Harvick or Rowdy get his dander up during a race; let Gordon get discouraged with a fitfully handling car; let Keselowski's wild style bite him. These sorts of things have happened before. The hunters' hands remain steady in the 48 pits.

Of the rest in the Chase field, Kenseth, Carl Edwards and maybe Kurt Busch are the only ones I see capable of going on hot streaks that would move them to the fore of the hunt.

Of the two Stewart-Haas Racing teammates, Newman (tied for fifth) has run better and has the better chance, according to his boss, Tony Stewart (tied for ninth). But neither has shown enough strength this year to break through the aforementioned, currently momentum-driven pack.

If Hamlin couldn't get it done last season from a position of strength, it's hard to see him, going into the Chase with just one win and tied for 12th with Keselowski, going on a hot streak.

Junior Nation is of course asking by now about Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s chances.

Give him credit for fighting and clawing his way into the Chase with gutsy persistence at Richmond. But he had to struggle. And struggling isn't the way you win a championship.

In the Chase format, you just about have to win, and you'd better win multiple times.

The Light Brigade got beaten up because the British charged in an errant direction. The 48 team has its well-worn roadmap.

They may be dethroned this time. But I'll believe it when I see it.

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn.com.