Jimmie Johnson is vying to be the first driver to successfully defend his Cup Series championship since Jeff Gordon won back-to-back titles in 1997-98. If Johnson falls short, he'll likely have to look no further than his Hendrick Motorsports teammate to see why.
Gordon holds a 53-point lead over Johnson heading into Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Johnson won in March. Coming off a win at Martinsville Speedway, the driver could be embarking on the type of late-season run that carried him to the Nextel Cup crown last fall.
That's why he was asked on a Tuesday teleconference what it takes to win back-to-back championships.
"I really don't know if I have an answer," Johnson said with a laugh. "I'm trying to think of something creative to say. But we're not there yet, but we're close and we're fighting for it.
"I can say that I'm really proud of our team being able to refocus and get through the winter and drive technology and come out swinging and fighting for a championship again. That's pretty uncommon to have happen. We all know the last one to do it was Jeff. I think it is a very difficult thing to do. I'm really proud of the commitment and dedication and focus that Hendrick [Motorsports] has had [as a whole] and also the guys on the 48 team."
As Johnson held off Ryan Newman to win at Martinsville, he was happy to see Newman get by Gordon and into second place. Every point matters, as was evident when Gordon let Newman know he was a little frustrated with the contact between the two.
Gordon, though, made it clear he understood Newman's intent and that he and Newman have cleared the air since their postrace discussion. Johnson doesn't expect the intensity to subside, either.
"At this point, every position is going to make a difference. At this point, I wouldn't anticipate Jeff having any weak tracks in the races we have ahead of us," Johnson said. "It's still in our control. I still think we can race our way into the championship, but it's certainly going to be a good fight all the way to the end."
Having yet to win a title under the Chase for the Nextel Cup format, Gordon is taking each race as it comes.
"We've had a good start to the Chase, but a lot can still happen in the remaining four races," Gordon said. "A lot can happen in one race. In the few years since the Chase began, it seems like the champion has had at least one bad finish during the 10-race stretch. But that may not happen this year.
It's still in our control. I still think we can race our way into the championship, but it's certainly going to be a good fight all the way to the end.
-- Jimmie Johnson
"Jimmie has been strong and I don't see that team letting up, and Clint has been consistent. A lot of people are counting Tony out, but that team is capable of going on a tear. Until someone is mathematically eliminated, I'm considering them a threat to win the championship."
Gordon has four wins and 12 top-fives in 30 starts at Atlanta, while Johnson has won there twice and has seven top-5s in only 12 starts. A tire left loose on a pit stop hindered Gordon at the track in March, and Johnson hopes he has an advantage there heading into Sunday's race.
Of course, he felt that way two weeks ago at Lowe's Motor Speedway and things didn't quite work out as he envisioned.
"I think Atlanta has been a little better for us lately, but I say that and think that in my mind and I thought I was going to have a great opportunity at Lowe's Motor Speedway to pull some points on Jeff, but he won the race and I finished 14th," Johnson said. "So it's tough to really have a lot of confidence in anything. I look at Atlanta and think there may be a chance [to gain on Gordon].
" Texas has kind of been a wash for either one of us. ... Phoenix, I think Jeff has been a little stronger there than I have lately and then Homestead has kind of been a wash. I don't see a lot of big opportunities to really get in there and take advantage of or exploit a track that's not good for the No. 24."
As is the case with Gordon, Johnson isn't ruling anyone out, saying he thinks Bowyer is still a strong threat for the title, as well. And unlike some drivers, Johnson readily admits he pays attention to the point standings.
"If you're gaining points on the leader, I try to look ahead at what I need to do to catch whoever is ahead of me," Johnson said. "If you're up on top, you spend a lot of time looking back. That's what I did last year at different points, looking who could catch us and who is where and who is scoring points. So I actually pay attention to that stuff."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.