Updated: September 24, 2012, 8:02 PM ET

Jimmie Johnson still the driver to beat

Newton By David Newton
ESPN.com
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Denny Hamlin fulfilling his Twitter promise to win Sunday's Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire was strong, but when it comes to tweets, Jimmie Johnson's may prove more prophetic.

Shortly after finishing second Johnson wrote, "I'm really stoked with our strong start to the Chase."

For emphasis or not, he tweeted it twice.

Nothing against Hamlin, but Johnson remains the driver to beat in this Chase. Two second-place finishes represent his best-ever start to NASCAR's 10-race playoff. They gave him the points lead by one over Brad Keselowski and seven over Hamlin.

Catch the five-time champion if you can.

Not to suggest that the Chase is over, but … let Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon explain.

"You know, Jimmie's won five championships," Gordon told reporters in New Hampshire after finishing third. "These guys are not going to make huge mistakes."

Even when the No. 48 does make a mistake it has shown the propensity to rally like no other team in NASCAR history. Odds are a mistake won't come this weekend at Dover, where Johnson won earlier this year and has seven career victories, including four of the past seven.

"When they are in this position, you expect them to be strong week in and week out and they are going to be tough to beat," Gordon said. "[Their leading] allows the competition to get down, [be] beat mentally as well as on the racetrack. That gives you another edge."

And Johnson doesn't need to tweet what he's going to do. He lets his performance speak for itself.

Sunday's performance was the kind that wins championships. Johnson started 20th and put himself in a position to win on the restart after the final caution.

"If I could have gone into the corner on the outside of [Hamlin] and kind of pinned him down a little bit, I may have had a chance to get by," Johnson told reporters. "But once I got into the turn, there's paving seams in the road and I got my right side on a paving seam."

So Johnson did what he does best. He didn't make a mistake that could have cost him a solid finish, and he put himself in position to win another title. He understands how good he is on most of the final eight tracks. He understands how good his team is at being consistent and not making mistakes.

Hamlin still hasn't proved that. He can look unbeatable one week and then have something bite him -- like running out of fuel at Chicago a week earlier.

And for the record, Hamlin has no wins with an average finish of 20.5 at Dover, more than twice the 8.9 average finish Johnson has compiled.

As much as everyone wants to say this championship will come down to winning races, based on Tony Stewart winning five last season en route to his third title, it's really going to come down to consistency as it does almost every year.

That's where Johnson has a huge edge on the rest of the field. He has a proven track record of running consistently and winning races in the Chase.

"I certainly look at good tracks and want to capitalize," Johnson said. "[Hamlin and his team] had that on their mind this weekend and came in here and executed and did a great job.

"You know, when you get to the Chase, you need to execute on your great tracks and get the results you should there, and then on your tracks that aren't your best, you still have to have good days. This track's been hit or miss for us over the years, so to come out of here in second, I'm real happy."

In other words, catch him if you can.

Some people wanted to make this a two-man Chase after Keselowski held off Johnson last week. Hamlin proved on Sunday he shouldn't be overlooked.

Others may step forward in the coming weeks.

But this really is a one-man Chase until somebody proves to be more consistent than Johnson.

Hamlin at least has the confidence to do it. He wouldn't make such a bold tweet about winning without it.

"You just learn from over time what it takes to build a championship team and what makes these guys tick," Hamlin said after Sunday's win. "You don't think as a driver that your emotion has any bearing on how they perform, but it really does.

"I find over the seven years that I've been here … it's just that they really feed off of your attitude and your outlook, and obviously when I have confidence they have a ton of confidence."

But no team has more confidence than Johnson's. That's what winning five of the past six titles will do for you.

And in none of those five title runs did Johnson start with a better average finish than the 2.0 he has in the first two races. The closest was in 2009 when he averaged 2.5 with a fourth and a win.

No wonder he's stoked.

"We didn't have anything for [Hamlin]," Johnson said. "I wish we did. [But] leaving the track that's been fair for me with above-average finish and going to a track that I love next weekend …"

Catch him if you can.

Terry Blount: Hamlin calls his shot | Live! rewind | Recap | Results | Highlights

Nationwide Series: RCR boys will settle it on the track

Team owner Richard Childress is going to have an interesting final six races.

His grandson, Austin Dillon, is 19 points out of third in the championship standings after Saturday's victory at Kentucky Speedway. His lame-duck driver, Elliott Sadler, is the points leader.

But at least it appears now they'll be allowed to battle it out without interruption.

That didn't seem the case a week earlier at Chicagoland Speedway. As Sadler fought Dillon for position, Dillon's crew chief, Danny Stockman, told his driver "You do not help the No. 2 car."

Stockman apparently was upset that Sadler chose earlier to push lame-duck Joe Gibbs Racing driver Joey Logano instead of his driver in the draft. That Sadler is negotiating a deal to drive a full-time Nationwide and part-time Cup deal for JGR next season probably didn't help.

Childress made it clear to Stockman after the race that nobody is playing favorites, then made it clear to reporters on Sunday.

"If it comes down to the end and it was Austin or him battling side by side for the win, yeah, I'm going to pull for Austin on the last lap," Childress told USA Today last week. "But everybody is going to have the same equipment, the same opportunity, and what they do with it is up to them."

That's what happened on Saturday. Sadler developed steering issues with 50 laps remaining and had to give up the lead to Dillon. Sadler finished fifth, but took over the points lead by four over Roush Fenway Racing's Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished 17th.

Barring a catastrophe, Sadler and Dillon should be in the running all the way to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Sadler has been no lower than second all season, leading 22 weeks. Dillon has been no lower than fourth all season and is on a roll with six straight top-10s.

It's good to know Childress has issued the mandate that they will decide things on the track, not from the pit box.

On another note, more than a few of you pointed out that Johanna Long finished 12th and ahead of Danica Patrick, who finished 14th. But what you didn't point out was Patrick has finished ahead of Long in 11 of the 18 races they both have been in this season, and that Patrick's average finish in those races is 18.8 compared to 21.9 for Long.

That being said, it would be interesting to see what Long could do in equipment as good as Patrick has at JR Motorsports.

Brant James: Danica 14th with new crew chief | Recap | Results | Highlights

Camping World Truck Series: Buescher lurking

James Buescher isn't going to let Ty Dillon win this series without a fight.

Buescher won for the fourth time this season, the second at Kentucky, to pull within four points of Dillon with six races to go. Over the past seven races Buescher has an average finish of 5.1 with two wins and six finishes of seventh or better.

He's erased almost all of a 40-point deficit he faced eight races ago. He's done this with Dillon finishing first, second and third in his past three races.

Keep an eye on this one. It could be the best finish of any of the top three series.

Recap | Results

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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