Are Matt Kenseth (left) and Kyle Busch (right) among the top threats to Jimmie Johnson's championship hopes this season?
Given the season he's enjoyed so far, having dominated the No. 1 spot in the Sprint Cup standings for 18 of the first 20 weeks—and never being lower than third in the other two weeks—Jimmie Johnson is unquestionably the driver to beat for the championship this season.
But just because he's been No. 1 up to now doesn't mean he'll finish up the Chase for the Sprint Cup in the same position, which would mean a sixth Cup crown for the suburban San Diego native.
There indeed are several drivers out there that could knock Johnson from his spot atop the standings.
Sure, it may take awhile, given he holds a large 75-point lead over second-ranked Clint Bowyer heading into Sunday's race at Pocono Raceway. But Johnson is not unbeatable or insurmountable. We just need to look back to the end of last season to know that.
So who are the top threats to challenge Johnson's superiority—not to mention having the best chance to overtake him? Here are the five top contenders in our mind.
But there's also one other threat that is not on the list: Johnson himself. Hopefully he's learned from crucial mistakes that cost him the title last season. Remember how he fell behind at Phoenix in the second-to-last race, pushed it too hard in an effort to catch up and wrecked?
Or how about overdriving the car in the season finale at Homestead, which knocked him out of both the race and the championship hunt?
More than anything, Johnson has to do what he does best: Drive a level-headed race, be aggressive yet not overaggressive (obviously a fine line to walk), take chances where the risk-reward ratio is most favorable and stay out of other drivers' messes.
Kevin Harvick would like nothing better than to finally win his first Sprint Cup Championship in his final season with Richard Childress Racing.
Harvick is leaving RCR after this season to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014.
Of all the potential challengers to Johnson, Harvick is arguably the most unpredictable. If he is able to catch fire in the Chase, he could be the biggest obstacle Johnson will have to overcome.
Plus, Harvick is also arguably the best driver in the Cup Series when it comes to come-from-behind winning. Although he used to be known more so as "Happy Harvick," the Bakersfield, Calif. native has become known in the last year as "Mr. Where Did He Come From?"
Harvick has been flying under the radar a lot this season, but the numbers don't lie: In the first 20 races, he has two wins, five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes.
This was a real conundrum choice. Stewart is a three-time Sprint Cup champion, but he got off to the worst start of his Cup career earlier this season and has struggled to regain and maintain consistency.
If the Chase were to start now, he'd qualify as one of the two wild-card entries. But there are still six races remaining between now and the finalization of this year's final field for the Chase—and anything could potentially happen to Smoke.
Therein lies the conundrum: Will Stewart make the Chase or not? And also why we rank him fourth on this list rather than higher.
Sitting 11th in the standings right now is NOT a very comfortable position, indeed.
But for argument's sake, let's presuppose that Stewart indeed makes the Chase. Frankly, there's no tougher opponent in the series than the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet.
Look at what he did in 2011: He came into the Chase without any wins—and then proceeded to win five of the 10 Chase races, capped off by winning his third Cup championship.
If anyone could do something like that again, it's Stewart.
But first, he has to make sure he makes the Chase. Another win or two would certainly go a long way toward securing a guaranteed top-10 berth, because the two wild-card spots are just too iffy and dicey.
Clint Bowyer has not won a race yet in 2013. But at the same time, he's been one of the most consistent drivers on the Cup circuit with seven top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in the first 20 races (he also has two DNFs).
For whatever reason, Bowyer just doesn't seem to have the same kind of magic he had last season when he finished a career-best second in the standings, just 39 points behind eventual champion Brad Keselowski.
Speaking of Keselowski, we're not 100 percent sure he will make the Chase to defend his title, given he's slipped all the way back to 13th in the standings heading into Sunday's race at Pocono.
But getting back to Bowyer, he needs a marquee win in the next six races at a place like Pocono or Bristol or even the final pre-Chase race at Richmond. If he goes into the Chase without any wins, he'll be among the lowest-seeded drivers—and that's almost a guaranteed way to not be a competitive factor against Johnson in the Chase.
Sure, Kyle Busch says a lot of wrong things and draws a lot of fans' ire for those comments.
But there's no denying he's one of the most dangerous drivers in the sport—and I mean that in a good way. Putting the word "dangerous" and Busch's name in the same sentence means he is a potential winner every time he straps into a race car.
Busch has two wins, nine top-five and 12 top-10 finishes along with three poles in the first 20 races. Even so, currently ranked seventh, he's still not a lock to make the Chase—although even if he slips out of the top 10 between now and Richmond, he likely will still qualify based on wins.
But with places like Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond coming up, I've got a gut feeling that Busch will add to his wins total, which will certainly strengthen his cause against Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth heading into the Chase.
The most important thing for Busch is to keep his mouth closed and not go off again like he did against Ryan Newman at New Hampshire a few weeks back. For whatever reason, whenever Busch criticizes another driver or does something stupid on the racetrack himself, he winds up in trouble.
One other thing: Busch needs to watch his aggressiveness not only in the next six pre-Chase races, but also during the Chase as well. He already has three DNFs in the first 20 races. He can ill afford to have even one more the rest of the way in the remaining 16 races.
If Busch is really serious about winning a Sprint Cup Championship, he should first and foremost let only his driving do the talking for him.
The last thing he needs to do is get into a trash-talking battle with anyone, particularly a guy like Johnson, in the Chase.
That will only serve to inspire the five-time champ rather than infuriate him.
How can you not pick Matt Kenseth as the biggest threat to Jimmie Johnson's bid for a sixth Sprint Cup Championship this season?
Kenseth only has four wins, the same as Johnson, five top-five and 11 top-10 finishes (although I admit I am concerned that he already has three DNFs up to this point).
If the Chase were to begin today, it would be Johnson and Kenseth 1-2 to start the 10-race playoffs. And it likely would stay that way through the Chase unless Kenseth ran into trouble along the way.
What Kenseth has done in his first season at Joe Gibbs Racing after leaving Roush Fenway Racing is nothing short of spectacular.
While many admittedly had to wonder what kind of transition Kenseth would have going from one team to another, not to mention one manufacturer (Ford) to another (Toyota), the changeover has been nothing but seamless.
Kenseth is a laid-back sort and typically doesn't let much get to him. But if he finds himself in the heat of the championship battle with only a race or two left to go, he could potentially fall victim to trash talking by Johnson. That's why it's important for Kenseth to go out and get at least another two or three wins in the remaining 16 races.
Not only will that increase his confidence, it could also send a huge message to Johnson without having to say a word.
Remember, Johnson isn't the only former Cup champion. Kenseth won the crown in 2003, and what better way to commemorate that title than to do it again in 2013.
Follow me on Twitter @JerryBonkowski