Here we go again.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup championship looms in mid-September after five more races, and five-time champion Jimmie Johnson is gaining momentum as he seeks to regain the throne he lost last year to Tony Stewart.
Heading into Sunday's Finger Lakes 355 at Watkins Glen International, Johnson has three wins, seven other top-five finishes, and has led a series-best 956 laps (16.64 percent of the season). He ranks fourth in points but is just eight behind leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., his garage mate at powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.
"I'm real happy with the way things have gone here in the last three or four months," said Johnson, who dominated two weeks ago in winning the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis and was the car to beat a week ago at Pocono before he spun out on a restart, giving the victory in the rain-shortened race to teammate Jeff Gordon. "We had a lot of speed and a lot of great results."
The garage has taken note, especially Johnson's teammates, as the series gets set for the fast 2.45-mile, 11-curve road course at Watkins Glen International.
"It's hard not to be a little nervous about Jimmie Johnson, (crew chief) Chad Knaus and that 48 team right now, as dominant as they've been and as strong as they've been," Gordon said. "You get them in the Chase with that kind of performance, and they'd be at the top of anybody's worry list."
The top 10 drivers in the points automatically qualify for NASCAR's version of a postseason. Chase positions 11 and 12 are wild cards and are awarded to those drivers between 11th and 20th in points who have the most wins.
Unlike other years since the Chase began in 2004, there is no heated scramble among the top 10 right now because they're well-entrenched. Clint Bowyer is 10th, but he won at Sonoma and is 57 points ahead of 11th-place Kasey Kahne. It's the five drivers with wins outside the top 10 and winless Carl Edwards (he's 12th in points, three behind Kahne) who are on pins and needles as they compete to fill the wild cards.
Kahne has two victories this season and holds one wild card. The other is held by Gordon, Kahne's garage mate at Hendrick, who has overcome a season of recurring bad luck. Gordon, tied for 13th in points with Ryan Newman, zoomed into the playoff picture with that win at Pocono, the 86th of his career, putting all four Hendrick cars in the running to make the Chase.
"It would be great for the company being able to enjoy that experience," Earnhardt said. "Right at the start of the year, the 5 (Kahne) and 24 (Gordon) were rocket fast. They had the most speed that I saw in the garage. They've been that quick all year and just have had terrible luck.
"When you really, really watch their every practice lap like we all do ... we're all trying to figure out who has the best average in practice," Earnhardt said. "You do this every single week, and Jeff and the 5 car are always near the top of the list. They've just had tough luck."
So, too, has Kyle Busch, who also has one win but was overtaken by Gordon in points last week after a shattered brake rotor ruined his day. He's 12 points behind Newman and Gordon and 24 points ahead of Joey Logano, the other driver in the top 20 with a victory this season.
In the past nine races, Busch has had three finishes outside the top 30 — two because of engine failures — and two outside the top 20, and he was 16th at Loudon last month after starting from the pole. He led the first 66 laps of that race, but the rest of the day was pretty forgettable for the Joe Gibbs Racing driver. A bad pit stop, a speeding penalty on pit road and a caution that flew at the wrong time spoiled his day.
"It's so frustrating because we've had good race cars every week and, aside from Indy (second) a few weeks ago, we just haven't had anything go our way," said Busch, who qualified second on Saturday behind Juan Pablo Montoya. "That's the way our season has gone. I don't think we'll be able to get back to the top 10, so we need to win to get in (to the Chase). The wins are important. That's it. Gotta win."
Busch has won here before, and in style. In 2008, he dominated road racing, winning both Cup races and a Nationwide race in Mexico, becoming the first and only NASCAR driver to win three road races in a season.
In all, Busch has 12 wins at the next five tracks on the schedule before the Chase field is set and probably should have at least one more. Last year, he led a race-high 49 laps at Watkins Glen but was beaten by Marcos Ambrose in a fender-banging, green-white-checkered finish that ended in caution.
Johnson, who has one road course victory in his stellar career, qualified third on Saturday and had the fastest average speed in practice. He has endeavored to become a polished road racer, getting seat time in the Rolex Grand-Am Series and last year driving in the Nationwide race at The Glen, where he was second to Kurt Busch in a green-white-checkered finish.
At least Johnson didn't run out of gas, something he'll be concerned about come Sunday.
"This track is tough," Johnson said. "There is a lot of time to be made through the esses and up on the long, back straightaway. When you are right through there, you are on the throttle a long time, burning a lot of fuel. You are right on the edge. If you get good fuel mileage, have some cautions fall for you, you can go one less (pit) stop than everyone else.
"I have yet to have that happen. I just use the throttle too much, drive the car with the throttle a lot, and usually have to make that extra stop. I feel like that's hurt us at the end of the day."
John Kekis can be followed at http://twitter.com/Greek1947