(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) - The NASCAR season is less than half over and already it is fair to ask if anyone can catch Hendrick Motorsports.
After five straight Sprint Cup victories - including three by defending champion Jimmie Johnson - Hendrick now holds the top three spots in the points standings, and even rival driver Brad Keselowski concedes that when it comes to engines, at least, nothing is likely to change.
''We all have got a little bit of work to do because it's pretty obvious that the Hendrick engines are way ahead of everyone else,'' said Keselowski, who drives for Roger Penske. ''Usually that's not something you catch up with in one season. As far ahead as they are right now, they're probably a full season ahead of everyone.''
Johnson's victory at Michigan on Sunday was the fifth in a row for Hendrick in a points-paying Cup race, and that doesn't tell the whole story of how dominant the team was. Kasey Kahne, points leader Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. also finished in the top seven for Hendrick.
Even other Chevrolet drivers also benefited from using Hendrick motors. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas) and Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi) finished second and eighth.
''I think we were a little off early in the year, and we've been kind of clicking here lately,'' owner Rick Hendrick said. ''Everybody is really putting out a lot of effort right now, and it's paying off.''
This is the third time Hendrick has won five straight races. The team accomplished the feat twice in 2007, including a six-race streak. Johnson, of course, has been the series' dominant driver in recent years, with six Cup titles to his credit. He won the championship last year and has surged back into second place in the standings with three wins in the last four races.
Gordon, meanwhile, is atop the standings at age 42, and Earnhardt has two victories this season, his four-year winless stretch from 2008-12 now a distant memory.
''I just know our cars are fast,'' Johnson said. ''The cars are all pretty equal aero-wise with what the rules are from NASCAR, but I'm not good enough to pick it out and tell you that we've got people beat in just one area. It's a team effort. Our engine shop is very strong. We've always known that.''
Keselowski won the Cup championship for Penske in 2012, so he's among the drivers best positioned to challenge Hendrick's impressive group. After two straight second-place finishes, he was third at Michigan.
Although he expects Hendrick will continue to have the best engines, that doesn't mean all hope is lost for everyone else.
''I think the way this year's package has kind of come together, where we are right now is where we're going to be for the remainder of the year. You might see some small gains from some teams but I don't see anything significant coming,'' Keselowski said. ''I think right now the Penske cars are probably the best when it comes to balanced track to track. The Hendrick cars are probably the best where it takes power to run.''
Michigan may have been a sign of things to come - Johnson, Gordon and Earnhardt in contention, with Keselowski and the rest of the drivers doing their best to keep up.
''Rick gives us all the tools to go out there and do our jobs and to have everything so fast and so good, you want it to last forever,'' Johnson said. ''We know that it won't, but it's just a good time to sit back and reflect and enjoy it.''

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