FONTANA, Calif. (AP) - Jimmie Johnson is back in a familiar place, atop the points lead, headed toward what appears to be the inevitable: a fifth straight Sprint Cup championship.
Not so fast. This Chase doesn't have quite the same here-we-go-again feel as the others.
The Chasers chasing Johnson have closed the gap, on the track and in their heads. Nine drivers are within 101 points of his lead and the No. 48 in the rearview mirror no longer strikes fear in opponents as it once did.
Johnson hasn't seemed nearly as dominant, either, an up-and-down ride that has included six wins but just as many 30th-or-worses.
A fifth straight title is certainly still a possibility. It's just this season it seems he'll have to work a little harder to get it.
``It's a more even playing field than it has ever been,'' said Clint Bowyer, 12th in the Chase standings. ``I don't think they have the one-up on the competition every week. I think it's going to be a struggle to win that championship all the way down to Homestead.''
There have been some uncharacteristic struggles already.
Johnson opened the season with a 35th at Daytona due to a rear axle problem, won three of the next four races, then went on a now-he's-up, now-he's-down stretch of racing. He entered the Chase seventh in points and opened the 10-race run to the finish with a 25th at New Hampshire - worst among the Chase drivers - thanks to a loose right wheel.
Then, as he always seems to, Johnson hit the accelerator. He won the second Chase race in Dover and overcame a weak qualifying session in Kansas last week to claw his way to a second-place finish and the points lead, eight ahead of Denny Hamlin.
This weekend, Johnson is back home in Southern California at Auto Club Speedway, where he's won four of his five Fontana titles in the past six starts and hasn't finished out of the top 10 since 2006.
``I really don't want to fall into a false sense of security and think that because we have run well here in the past that we're going to come back and have it again,'' said Johnson, who'll start eighth in Sunday's 400-mile race. ``You have to come back and prove yourself every qualifying session and every race.''
Even with those four straight titles, Johnson may still have something to prove to his fellow drivers. They just don't seem as scared as they once did.
Johnson still had that coming-to-get-you air of invincibility last season, the mere sight of him in the mirror like a shark bearing down at 200 mph. Hamlin certainly felt the fear while leading at California in the fourth Chase race, panicking and crashing as the No. 48 grew larger in his rearview.
This season, drivers believe they can beat Johnson, that their teams aren't looking down the pits at the Lowe's Chevrolet with where'd-they-get-that-from looks on their faces.
That was clear at the first California race in February, when Kevin Harvick said he knew his team had caught the 48 and they were equals - after finishing second to Johnson.
``Can they be beat this year? Certainly. This year more than any year,'' Bowyer said. ``I've said it from the beginning of the Chase and even halfway through the season, he's had moments of struggles and Kansas was certainly one of them, but they turned that thing around and got an awesome finish out of if. He's definitely shown some signs of not being perfect all the time this year and maybe one of those things can bite them.''
Now it's time to take advantage. Problem is, no matter how much the drivers and teams believe they've closed the gap, they still have to race past it and him.
``I've said for five years, they're the best team out there and somebody has to beat them and knock them down before you can say they're not the best team,'' said Matt Kenseth, 11th in the Chase standings. ``Everybody says, 'Oh, they don't have momentum. They're not running as good.' Well, as soon as somebody shows they can beat them, I'll believe it.''
This may be their best chance yet.

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NASCAR Odds

Driver Odds
Odds to Win the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup 2017 Championship
Kevin Harvick #4 +650
Jimmie Johnson #48 +700
Martin Truex, Jr. #78 +850
Joey Logano #22 +850
Kyle Busch #18 +850

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