(Eds: With AP Photos.)
By NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer
BROOKLYN, Mich. (AP) - The Chase for the Sprint Cup title begins in less than a month, which means it's time to revisit what has become NASCAR's annual, season-ending question: Can anyone beat Jimmie Johnson?
The five-time defending champion finished a solid second last weekend at Michigan, and although he's won only once on the Sprint Cup circuit this year, Johnson is second in the standings just 10 points behind Kyle Busch. Even after being outraced by Busch on Sunday, Johnson sounded confident that he'll be ready when the Chase begins Sept. 18 at Chicagoland.
``The thing that I've been able to pull back on and fall on was my past history,'' Johnson said. ``I'm very interested to see how this Chase is going to go. I think it's the hardest one to predict. It's going to be a close one. I don't know who to make the favorite. We'll just have to see how everybody responds to the pressure when it really kicks up.''
Johnson's run nearly came to an end last year, but he overtook Denny Hamlin in the standings by running second in the season finale. Now it's Busch who seems to be mounting the strongest challenge to Johnson's reign.
Yet even he is choosing his words carefully, well aware of the task ahead.
``It's definitely going to be a lot edgier through the Chase,'' Busch said. ``Certainly there's going to be times throughout the Chase where you've got to play it right and you have to play it smart, be smooth and cool about it. For us, the biggest thing is to try to concentrate on what we've been doing all year.''
Busch was the regular-season points leader in 2008, but a bolt broke on his sway bar in the first race of the Chase, then a blown engine the following weekend ended his hopes for the championship. Busch's fall from contention to also-ran status was stunningly swift - and underscores how remarkably consistent Johnson has been.
Johnson may have only one win this year, but last weekend was the sixth top-three showing for the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, and he's finished out of the top 20 only three times. His day was far from perfect Sunday - an early mistake on pit road dropped him way behind the leaders - but he raced back into contention and even took the lead before Busch passed him with about a dozen laps remaining.
Outlasting the experienced Johnson over the long haul looks like a daunting task for any driver.
``The Chase does something to everyone, the pressure that's put on the drivers, watching your life's work come to a head over a 10-race period of time,'' Johnson said. ``As the races click off, it comes down to two or three races left, it does weird things to people, outside the car, on the pit box, things happen. We've seen that.''
Johnson's dominance of NASCAR's top level has become so ingrained, it's not just the other drivers who have to answer for it. Immediately after Busch's victory last weekend, Dave Rogers, his crew chief, was asked how he can beat Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief.
``That's a good question,'' Rogers said. ``We're going to control what we can control. I can't control what Chad does. I can't control what Jimmie does.''
Busch isn't the only top driver hoping to dethrone Johnson. Kevin Harvick has three Sprint Cup wins this season, and Carl Edwards has 10 top-five finishes.
Then there's Brad Keselowski, who is in 12th place but gaining ground fast after three straight top-three showings. Keselowski looks likely to make the Chase as a wild card, but as well as he's racing right now, he understands what it will take to keep Johnson from another Cup title.
``I'm sure a lot of people in the garage would say his last championship was the most impressive,'' Keselowski said. ``To beat Jimmie, you're going to have to have a fast racecar and outexecute him. I think he's proven that just having a fast racecar isn't going to beat him.''
There are three races remaining before the Chase begins, but for Johnson and the other drivers at the top of the standings, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond feel more like tuneups before the real fun starts.
``You are going to be tested in all areas. We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths,'' Johnson said. ``In order to win a championship in today's world, you've got to be rock solid. We will all learn in time who that guy is this year. We've been it the last five. Doesn't mean this year is our year. We've got to go out and earn it.''

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