The 2010 NASCAR Sprint Cup season ended exactly the way it began, with one fundamental question: What’s it going to take to finally beat Jimmie Johnson?

Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin gave him a run for his money in 2006.

Jeff Gordon had a championship-caliber season in 2007 and fell short.

Carl Edwards won nine races, including three of the last four in 2008, and came up empty.

Mark Martin had a career year in 2009 and it wasn’t enough.

And most surprisingly, Hamlin had Johnson down and nearly out this year, leading heading into Phoenix, where the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota dominated the race only to run short of fuel. A week later at Homestead, Hamlin made an unforced error and three hours later, Johnson was hoisting his fifth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup trophy.

Just to put that into context, Dale Earnhardt and Richard Petty are the only other drivers in NASCAR history to win five Sprint Cup championships in total, and neither of them won more than two in a row.

Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr., Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon have combined to win 140 career Cup races. But the only time in his career when Johnson wasn’t the top points earner at Hendrick came during his rookie year of 2002, when Gordon finished fourth and Johnson fifth, just seven points back.

Since he moved to the Cup level, Johnson has outscored Gordon by 3,669 points and in race victories, 53 to 24.

In the seven years that NASCAR has had the Chase for the Sprint Cup format, Johnson has won 47 races. Second on the list is Tony Stewart with 22 wins. No one else has even won 20 races in those seven years. In the Chase era, Johnson’s average points finish is 1.71.

But perhaps the most telling monument to the brilliance of Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team is that in January, NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France is expected to announce a new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, complete with “knockout rounds” to gradually shrink the field from 15 drivers at the start of the Chase to three competing for the title at Phoenix and Homestead.

And make absolutely no mistake about it, the Chase format is being changed by NASCAR to help ensure that someone — anyone — other than Johnson wins the championship, because right now, Johnson is, in the words of NASCAR founder Big Bill France “stinking up the show” with his success. And that’s bad for business.

But the cold, hard truth is that right now, Johnson and his team are simply better than everyone else — better than the other three Hendrick cars and better than the rest of the field. If you believe the old axiom about you are what your record says you are, Johnson is head and shoulders the best of his generation.

The only question now is will he become the greatest ever — or maybe more specifically, is he already there? It’s probably too early to answer that definitely, but Johnson is clearly aimed in that direction.

“I would love to get to 10 straight. I don't know how ridiculous that sounds,” he said of championships. “But, I mean, in your mind, shoot, I would love to do X, Y, and Z. The realistic side, there's no telling how long it's going to last, and I think we are all shocked it's gone on this far. Being a realist, I don't know if it's going to last. I'm amazed that we've been able to do this for five years straight.

“I want to believe, and I do feel in my heart, that we'll have a shot next year, but I don't know what those challenges are going to be, how competitive we'll be, what the competition's going to look like,” Johnson added. "It's really hard to look that far ahead. I feel like I have my best chances at Hendrick Motorsports, with Chad Knaus as my crew chief.”

As for taking aim at Petty and Earnhardt, he’s already there.

“If I can seam together seven in any shape or form to tie those two greats, I would be extremely honored,” said Johnson. “If I was ever able to surpass them, it would be out of this world.”

Tom Jensen is the Editor in Chief of SPEED.com, Senior NASCAR Editor at RACER and a contributing Editor for TruckSeries.com. You can follow him online at twitter.com/tomjensen100 and e-mail him at Jensen is the author of “Cheating: The Bad Things Good NASCAR Nextel Cup Racers Do In Pursuit of Speed,” and has appeared on numerous television and radio shows. Jensen is the past President of the National Motorsports Press Association and an NMPA Writer of the Year.