JOLIET, Ill. — Kyle Busch heads the list of favorites to win the NASCAR championship this season. He's followed by Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards, and Jeff Gordon ranks up there, too.
What about Jimmie Johnson? You know, the guy who has won the last five titles?
As usual, he seems to be overlooked. While the spotlight focuses on all the drivers who might end his reign, Johnson is quietly preparing for what he hopes will be a sixth consecutive title.
"I'm a realist," he said Friday at Chicagoland Speedway. "There's a year when we're not going to be the champion and that's fine. That's the way it is. I just want to make sure the team and myself, that we don't leave anything on the table. If we get beat we get beat, and I'll walk up and shake the champion's hand.
"What I'm most focused on as a team is that we don't beat ourselves."
The 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup championship begins Sunday at Chicagoland. Johnson goes in ranked sixth in the 12-driver field, and he trails co-leaders Busch and Harvick by nine points. He could theoretically make that up with a win Sunday, but those are harder and harder to come by these days.
Johnson has just one win so far this season, at Talladega, where Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. pushed him to the victory. More startling is the Talladega win is his only victory in the last 35 races — one shy of a full season.
Even though the lone victory is the fewest amount of wins he's had at the start of any previous Chase, it would be foolish to read too much into the numbers.
"I don't draw any conclusions," he said. "We've rolled in hot, we've rolled in cold and we've ended up with championships. I truly believe that these 10 races, it's a clean sheet of paper. You just start over."
His rivals understand they overlook at their own risk.
"It won't surprise anyone in the garage or this room if he were to be one of the contenders in the final race at Homestead," said Edwards, ranked fifth in the Chase standings. "He is awfully tough to have to race at these championships ... everyone takes that as a given. I think that is where the lack of talk about it comes from."
Teams have tried a variety of ways to beat Johnson down the stretch and failed. Hendrick teammate Gordon went toe-to-toe with him in 2007 and lost, Edwards used a flurry of late victories in 2008 and fell short and teammate Mark Martin couldn't keep pace in 2009.
Then came Denny Hamlin, the lone guy to actually get Johnson on the ropes. Hamlin went into last year's season finale as the points leader, but showed signs of cracking before he even got to the track. Johnson joked at the contenders news conference that Hamlin's nerves — he was shaking his leg under the dais — were rocking the entire stage.
It was no surprise when Johnson, smooth and steady, retained his title after Hamlin slogged through a sloppy final weekend.
So just what will it take to beat Johnson?
"No one's tried locking the (jerk) in a port-o-john yet," laughed Kyle Busch. "I mean that in the kindest way possible."
Trying to rattle Johnson is simply a waste of time. He scoffed at Kurt Busch at Richmond last weekend when Busch referred to him as "a five-time chump" and intimated he's in Johnson's head because Johnson intentionally wrecked him during the race.
Tired of the long-running feud, Johnson approached Kurt Busch during the Chase driver celebration and invited him into the infield to settle their differences once and for all in an exchange several other drivers witnessed. Instead, they agreed to attempt to move forward incident-free.
"What we do as champion drivers is put those things behind us and go race. That's what we're supposed to do," Busch said. "We know we have to race hard and race smart."
That's what Johnson intends to do, and there's evidence the No. 48 team has turned it up a notch while preparing for the Chase. Before Richmond, where the on-track incidents with Busch led to a 31st-place finish, Johnson ticked off five straight top-10s. He was second at Michigan, fourth at Bristol and second at Atlanta.
That ability to shift it into another gear and not let anyone disrupt him is what has competitors most worried.
"The 48 is perhaps the mentally strongest team there is out there," Brad Keselowski said. "I don't think anyone would argue that and they have speed. That's a lethal combination because when you have the mental focus that they have you can execute ... and when you have speed, that's two of the three parts of the pie, with the third one being a little bit of luck.
"Certainly nobody knows if they'll have the luck this year, too. It doesn't mean it's going to be easy for anyone to beat them but as far as time's concerned, eventually they've got to lose one, right? Eventually it's got to happen."