Ever since Jimmie Johnson clinched his fourth consecutive NASCAR Sprint Cup championship in 2009 it has been assumed that his record-extending fifth title with the No.48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet was simply a matter of course.
Not so any more.
While his nasty crash at Darlington on Saturday night certainly put an exclamation mark on his new vulnerability, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus have appeared perplexed with their race cars ever since NASCAR ended its wing era and went back to the rear spoiler design at Martinsville.
And finishes of 31st at Talladega, 10th at Richmond and 36th at Darlington has opened the door wider than at any time over the past four seasons for somebody other than Double J to have realistic hopes of winning the Cup this season.
Here's a look at the top five contenders we think are poised to replace Johnson as Sprint Cup champion.
- Denny Hamlin: In the off-season there was plenty of talk about how Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota team looked positioned to have breakthrough in 2010 to claim No.1 status over teammate Kyle Busch in the Joe Gibbs Racing garage. But a torn ACL suffered in a pickup basketball game in December all but ended that discussion. When Hamlin eventually had surgery in late March to repair the damage, his chances of even making the Chase this season were put in doubt. But three wins -- two since his surgery -- have put the 29-year-old Hamlin back among the challengers who could beat Johnson to the Cup come November at Homestead Miami Speedway.
- Kevin Harvick: At this time last season the consensus on Harvick was that the driver of the No. 29 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet wouldn't even be back with that team this year. Rumours were flying that Harvick would buy out the final year of his contract with RCR and bolt to his pal Tony Stewart's upstart Stewart Haas Racing team and take his Shell Oil sponsorship with him. Well a year later Harvick is still at RCR, Shell has announced it's leaving for Penske Racing and Harvick is having a career year, 110 points in front of Johnson in championship points.
- Jeff Gordon: It is easy to follow the media herd and only point to the No. 24 team's failure to win so far this season, but Gordon has compiled a record four Top 5 finishes in the past six races that puts him in a very good place to reclaim his status as the big kahuna in Hendrick-ville. Bad luck, more than lack of skill or lack of a good car, has hurt the four-time champion, but once that luck turns -- as it surely will -- watch out. He has got something to prove and beating Johnson to championship No. 5 is a powerful motivator.
- Kyle Busch: This season Busch has tried very hard to portray himself as "more mature" and less likely to act out his frustrations on the race track. While not everyone is buying this "new" Kyle Busch, he has appeared to revamp his career after missing the Chase in 2009. The No. 18 JGR team has a five-race streak of Top 10 finishes going into Dover. The younger Busch brother can still be petulant -- especially when he loses -- but he can't be counted out as a real threat to win it all in 2010.
- Kurt Busch: Kyle's older brother is quietly putting together his best Sprint Cup season since his championship in 2004. Kurt Busch has scored finishes of eighth or better in the Penske Racing No. 2 Dodge in each of the past four races. Busch senior has also bonded well with new crew chief Steve Addington who, coincidentally, guided the younger Busch to 14 victories at JGR.