If there was any doubt over whether Jimmie Johnson is back, he answered that early this season and continues to answer it in each subsequent race.
In 20 races, Johnson has four wins, nine top-five and 13 top-10 finishes—far and away the best performance of any Sprint Cup regular in 2013.
The winner of a record five consecutive championships from 2006 through 2010, Johnson trailed off to sixth in 2011 before bouncing partway back to third place in 2012.
But since the season-opening Daytona 500, it's very safe to say Johnson is not just all the way back, he's undoubtedly the man to beat for this season's Sprint Cup championship.
Sure, anything can happen in the upcoming 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup, but at the same time, The Chase is typically where Johnson shines brightest.
If what we've seen in the first 20 races is any indication of what's to come in the remaining 16—following Sunday's runner-up finish at the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway—it's going to be hard to pick against Johnson for the rest of the season.
Allow me to stare into my crystal ball: With four wins already, I think the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is good for at least another three more triumphs between now and the end of the season.
I wouldn't be surprised to see all of those come in The Chase, because there's no other part of the season where Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus ratchet things up more than in the 10-race playoffs.
And I think Johnson and Knaus learned a very valuable lesson during the final stages of last year's Chase that they won't let happen again: Let the race come to you rather than push it and wind up in trouble.
That's exactly what happened in last fall's second-to-last Chase race at Phoenix. Johnson began falling behind early in the race and then found himself further behind than he would have liked.
He started becoming more aggressive—some might say he became uncharacteristically overaggressive, leaving him open to costly mistakes—and ran into trouble, ultimately finishing 32nd and dropping him from first to second in the standings.
If Johnson would have made his kick sooner in the race, it's likely he wouldn't have run into trouble. Prior to that race in Phoenix, Johnson had two wins, four top-five and one top-10 finish along with his lowest Chase finish (17th at Talladega) in the first eight Chase races of 2012.
With Johnson and Matt Kenseth currently tied for wins with four each, they're currently the top two contenders to kick off The Chase as No. 1. But with Johnson having better numbers in top fives and top 10s thus far, it's pretty likely he'll start The Chase as the top seed.
In a sense, even with all the success he's had thus far, this has not exactly been a typical season for Johnson. More often than not, he's excelled in the second half of a season, including The Chase.
But since winning the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson has made it abundantly clear that he was going all out for his sixth Cup championship right from the get-go.
If you don't believe that, consider this: Johnson has been No. 1 in the rankings following the last 15 races and 18 of the first 20 races overall. On the two weeks when he wasn't at the top of the heap, he slipped no further than third in the standings.
No other challenger can come even close to boasting that kind of overwhelming success and, more importantly, consistency.
Other than Kenseth, who is sixth in the standings, and seventh-ranked Kyle Busch—who has won two races himself—several drivers that we thought would do well thus far simply haven't.
Tony Stewart? He's won one race and has just five top-five and seven top-10 finishes. He's also currently in 11th place, but still not necessarily a lock to make The Chase by any means.
Defending Sprint Cup champion Brad Keselowski? The same driver who won five races last season has yet to visit a Sprint Cup victory lane this season and dropped four places to 13th after Sunday's Brickyard 400.
That is certainly not a a strong indicator that he will be able to successfully defend his championship unless he has another great Chase run like last year's—or Stewart's five wins in the 10 Chase races in 2011.
Jeff Gordon? The four-time Cup champ has been up and down this season. Not only is he still winless, he has only four top-five and eight top-10 finishes. Even though he moved up to 10th in the standings after the Brickyard 400, he's still far from being a lock to make The Chase.
To me, Johnson has just been so strong and overwhelmed the competition so much that it's hard to pick against him as the odds-on favorite to win the title this year.
Sure, he could go into a losing slump, but it's hard to envision that with the outstanding consistency he's shown thus far.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski
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