Sports

Johnson faces challenges in quest for fourth straight Cup title

FORT WORTH, Texas - The only thing separating Jimmie Johnson from a date with Sprint Cup history is 10 races and arguably the strongest Sprint Cup Chase field ever.

Johnson, who is vying to become the first driver to win four consecutive Sprint Cup titles, will start Sunday's Sylvania 300 tied for second place in the standings.

He is tied with two-time champion Tony Stewart. Both of them trail Mark Martin, who has won four races in his first year with Hendrick Motorsports and is hungry for his first title.

The 12-driver field is deep, with Denny Hamlin in fourth place and coming off his second win of the season. Five-time champ Jeff Gordon and 2004 champ Kurt Busch are also in the title hunt.

And you cannot discount the quick-rising Brian Vickers, who knocked out both Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth on Saturday night to get into the Chase field.

Here's a look at what to expect in the Chase:

CONTENDERS

Tony Stewart

How do you pick against a guy who has had one of the most successful seasons by a first-year team? You can disregard his runs in the last month, as he has been able to go for broke to try to score bonus points. The only number you need to know about the two-time champion is he has five top-five finishes in Chase tracks this season.

Jimmie Johnson

Johnson will start the Chase tied for second in points. But does it really matter? He's vying for his fourth consecutive title, and it would not be smart to bet against him. He has wins this year at two of the Chase tracks, and top-10 finishes at four of the others. He is the odds-on favorite.

Mark Martin

The oldest Chaser ever at 50, he is making the most of his ride with Rick Hendrick. His success at the Chase tracks is all over the board, but he also has the ability to win. He comes into the Chase tied for the series lead with four wins and is the points leader. Those 40 bonus points could be the difference in earning him his elusive first title.

PRETENDERS

Carl Edwards

Those who are waiting for the preseason favorite to flip the switch once the Chase begins are in trouble. It's not going to happen. Ford drivers won two of the first 26 races, both of them courtesy of Matt Kenseth. Edwards has been inconsistent all season. Inconsistency hurts you in the Chase.

Kurt Busch

The 2004 champion has a strong track record at the Chase tracks. The biggest problem he is going to have is with off-the-track distractions. Crew chief Pat Tryson has announced he is leaving the team after the season. While the two have a history of squabbles, the timing of the move could not be worse for Busch.

Juan Montoya

Like Brian Vickers, the Colombian is a first-time Chaser. That is a big step for him, but it's also likely to be the pinnacle for his season. Montoya has not run well at the Chase tracks this season, and the Earnhardt Ganassi group will not be able to keep up with the Hendrick power.

RISING

Brian Vickers

Eight races ago, Vickers was not on the Chase radar, being 17th in points. But he ran off eight consecutive races in which he finished no worse than 12th to grab the final Chase spot. He also gave the Red Bull team its first win at the Carfax 400 in Michigan.

FALLING

Greg Biffle

Biffle has been stuck in neutral since the middle of the season. He was as high as seventh in points, but will start the Chase 12th and has three top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts.

WHERE THE CHAMPIONS WERE ENTERING THE CHASE

2008 Jimmie Johnson 3rd

2007 Jimmie Johnson 1st

2006 Jimmie Johnson 2nd

2005 Tony Stewart 1st

2004 Kurt Busch 7th

KEY TRACKS

Loudon: If momentum matters, than getting off to a good start in the Chase is key. If you don't believe it, ask Kyle Busch. He opened the Chase last year with a 30-point lead. But he finished 34th at the Sylvania 300 and left the race eighth in points. He never recovered. Eventual champ Jimmie Johnson got his Chase off to a second-place finish.

Talladega: There's bad news for those who think Talladega does not belong in the Chase. Last year drivers had six races to recover from the carnage the track normally creates. But this season, the only restrictor-plate race in the track is the seventh Chase race, which should make for more cautious driving. However, as Carl Edwards proved last year when he caused "The Big One," nothing's for certain at the Alabama track.

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