Another week, another dominating performance by Jimmie Johnson.
Mother Nature might have placed him on the pole at Pocono Raceway on Sunday, after rain washed out qualifying, but by leading 128 of 160 laps, he proved that his position was deserved. After all, Johnson earned that position because of his season long dominance that sees him with a 51-point lead on second-place Carl Edwards after the Party in the Poconos 400.
To put it simply, Johnson could go stir a piña colada on the beach next Sunday, while the rest of the drivers go at it in Michigan, and return with his points lead still intact. Honestly, that's not a bad proposition for the rest of the field, which has seen Johnson win three of the first 14 races and take control of another (Dover a week ago) before a late black flag for an illegal restart took him out of contention.
Johnson won five consecutive titles from 2006-10 and was just edged by Brad Keselowski in his bid for a six-pack last fall. He doesn't always come into form this early in a season and it's a daunting proposition to try to beat him down the stretch in the Chase format that he's owned for much of its existence.
That said, there are a lot of good drivers in NASCAR. Here are five with a good opportunity to keep Johnson counting his Sprint Cup trophies on one hand:
1. Matt Kenseth - The move to Joe Gibbs Racing has done nothing but help the 2003 Cup champion. He usually contended with Roush Fenway Racing and picked up regular wins, but he's never been quite this impressive. Like Johnson, he also has three wins and is leading a lot more laps than he had a reputation of doing in the past.
2. Kyle Busch - Inconsistency has been the knock on the younger Busch brother in the past and it continues to haunt him this season. He's not as reckless as he once was and seems to have a much better grasp on points racing, but that hasn't stopped bad luck (including two blown engines) from finding him. He has two wins and six top-fives this year, but also has four finishes of 34th or worse, which explains his seventh-place standing. If he gets consistent like he did in last year's Chase (for which he did not qualify), he could easily be the sport's best driver.
3. Kasey Kahne - Like Busch, luck hasn't been on Kahne's side this year. He has three finishes of 36th or worse, including this past weekend when he headed to pit road on the first lap because something wasn't right under the hood. However, when everything has been going, it's been going very well. He has a win and three second-place finishes, two of which he led over 100 laps before giving way. He was my pick for this year's championship, and I'm not giving up on him yet.
4. Clint Bowyer - Bad days are rare for the No. 15 team. After blowing an engine in Fontana, Bowyer has found consistency, finishing 18th or better in nine consecutive races, including two second-place finishes. His approach has put him third in points above the flashier drivers listed above. He won three times last season and if he can find victory lane with regularity in the second half of the season, he's a top contender.
5. Tony Stewart - Nobody seems to enjoy stuffing it to the nay-sayers more than Smoke. He won the 2011 championship after a lackluster and winless regular season. He dominated that Chase with five wins as he chuckled his way to the last laugh of the season, a win at Homestead-Miami Speedway. After early struggles this season, he turned a corner with a win at Dover and looks poised to race his way into the 2013 Chase, where he'll get his points reset like the rest of the field. He's the least consistent of the bunch, but he's shown the ability to catch lightning in a bottle before.
Of course, I haven't even touched on three drivers in the top-five right now: Carl Edwards, second; Dale Earnhardt Jr., fourth; and Kevin Harvick, fifth. I also didn't bring up the reigning champion Brad Keselowski, who sits ninth.
The take-away is this: yes, Johnson has been dominant, but there are a lot of very good drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series. The No. 48 is unquestionably the frontrunner for a title, but once the points get reset in September, anyone can take home the trophy with a good 10-race segment.