- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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The other Chasers need to finish ahead of Jimmie Johnson on Sunday or, well, they're finished.
Yes, it's close. Closer than ever at this point of the playoffs. But let Johnson have his way this weekend at Auto Club Speedway, as he usually does, and everyone (Chasers and fans) will stop believing what they're preaching:
Johnson is vulnerable. Johnson is beatable. Johnson is human.
Is he? The uh-oh moment came at the end of the race at Kansas when everyone looked at the standings.
The man no one wants to chase in the Chase was back on top after his second-place finish. Once again, Jimmie Johnson is leading the playoff format he has owned for the past four years with four consecutive championships.
"Anyone that believed they weren't going to be a factor hasn't been watching," Chase driver Jeff Burton said last weekend at Kansas. "They dominated the Chases. They've done a better job during the Chase.
"They have come into several of these Chases not being the hot team. But there's no question they know how to turn it up, and I believed that they were a threat to begin with."
The other contenders have to shake their heads and wonder, "What do we have to do? What does the No. 48 team know that we don't?"
Can it be demoralizing?
"I know that's a popular question," Johnson said after the Kansas race. "I don't have an answer for you."
Sure he does. Johnson knows his spot back on top means doubt starts creeping in for everyone else.
Many fans also shake their heads. A fifth consecutive Sprint Cup title would be another historic first in NASCAR, but it wouldn't be a popular outcome with most fans.
Nothing against Johnson. He's friendly, cooperative, respectful, everything any sport would want in a champion. But his long run at the top is getting a little boring. Fans at least want someone to challenge him.
And someone needs to tell Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus that all good things must end, not that either of them would believe it if you did.
Johnson and Knaus say all the right things, such as "Anybody can win this. There's a long way to go. We're not thinking about the title yet." Blah, blah, blah.
But when you look them in the eyes, you get a different feeling. Deep down, I don't think Johnson and Knaus believe anyone can beat them.
A quiet confidence is like a force field around both of them. And the other drivers can feel it.
Dale Earnhardt intimidated drivers by his aggressive actions on the track and his fearless demeanor off the track. Earnhardt was scary.
Johnson and Knaus' intimidation comes from a different dimension. They just outsmart you. They outthink you. Even on a day when you're faster, they still find a way to beat you.
And if you beat them, they stay close enough to you to say, "Hey, we're right here. You can't stop us."
The others say they can stop them this time, but do they really believe it?
"I think if you start chasing them, you are making a major mistake," Burton said. "I think you have to chase yourself."
There are reasons for optimism. Johnson leads the standings by only eight points over Denny Hamlin entering the Pepsi Max 400 (3 p.m. ET, ESPN) this weekend at Fontana, Calif.
With seven races remaining in the Chase, eight drivers are within 85 points of Johnson, the closest the playoff ever has been after three races.
And there are reasons for pessimism. Johnson is better than everyone else at Fontana. He's won three of the past four races on the wide 2-mile oval, the place he considers his home track. Johnson grew up only 90 miles away in El Cajon.
"California is just another one of those racetracks that seems to suit Jimmie really, really well," Kyle Busch said. "He's been in contention to win the past six races there. That's another place we know he'll be fast."
Next up after Fontana is Charlotte Motor Speedway, where Johnson has won six times, including the October event last year.
Then comes Martinsville, another place where Johnson has six victories, including five of the past eight races on the half-mile oval.
But there is good news for one Chaser. Hamlin won the other three Martinsville races, including the past two on the paper-clip flat track.
And there's one other equaling factor on the way -- Talladega.
"After Talladega, teams and drivers can work on a strategy of protecting or taking chances," Johnson said. "We have to get deeper into the Chase to be concerned about who the points leader is. It's just not time to worry about that stuff."
Not for Johnson and Knaus. But the worrying already has begun for the men hoping to stop them. They have to finish ahead of the No. 48 Chevrolet in Fontana or that sinking feeling will set in.
You know the one. That feeling deep in their guts. The one that tells them, they're finished.
Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
12dTom McKean, ESPN Stats & Information