Reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson is confident his team is on top of its game as the halfway point of this year's Chase approaches.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver has charged from 10th up to third in the play-off standings in the last two weeks, following a second-place finish at Dover and his second win of the season at Kansas last Sunday, which placed him just four points behind championship leader Carl Edwards.
Johnson has led 394 laps during this year's Chase so far, more than twice the number of second-best man Kurt Busch, who has been up front for 164 laps. Johnson is also one of only three drivers to have led each one of the playoff series races. While still early to draw any conclusions about the championship, the Californian believes his team's level of performance is right where it needs to be in order to be in contention, although he remains cautious about labeling anyone as favorite with six races to go.
"I definitely feel that our groove is here, and it's been slowly building," said Johnson. "In some respects, I wish it would have got here a long time ago. If you go back to the regular season and how we ran in Atlanta...Richmond was going to be a strong night for us...
"We had some good momentum in the three or four races coming into the start of the Chase. Chicago was a great race for us. I'm speaking also for the pit crew, as well, not only on track but on pit road. We've been slowly building in these last two weeks. It's hard to argue with a second and a first and all the laps that we led, what type of performances we've been having.
"I'm excited. I feel that we're where we need to be. We're in a groove of sorts, but this year it's been tough to stay consistent, not only for ourselves but for all the drivers, and I think it's going to make for an exciting Chase as we go here, and that's why you can't pick a favorite at this point.
"We're going to have to get three or four more races behind us to kind of see the picture of who's going to be racing for the championship."
Next up in the Chase schedule is Charlotte, a track where Johnson leads all Chase rivals with six victories in points-paying races. His recent performances at other mile-and-a-half tracks like Chicago and Kansas make him confident of keeping his momentum rolling at the halfway point of the title race this weekend.
However, he remains wary of what the race may have in store from a technical standpoint after he struggled to be a contender for victory when the series visited Charlotte last May for the All-Star and the 600-mile races. Johnson retired from the season's longest event with an engine failure after fighting his way to a hard-fought top 10 spot in the closing stages.
"I think we're going to be a threat," Johnson said. "When I go back to Chicago, Kentucky, Kansas obviously, our mile-and-a-half stuff has been coming along pretty good over the last two or three months, so I feel good about it.
"Charlotte, with that asphalt that's down, it is its own environment and really tough to get your car right from the start of the race to the end of the race. So I feel like directionally we're going the right way, but until I get on the track this week and understand what our grip level is and what our issues are, it's hard to build too much confidence. But it's been that way all year. It's so tough to take what you learn at one track and carry it to the next, harder than I have ever seen it in our sport."
Following Jeff Gordon's engine failure at Kansas last weekend, Johnson is the only Hendrick Motorsports driver with a clean shot at the 2011 title as the four-time champion and Dale Earnhardt Jr. are, respectively, 47 and 43 points behind in the Chase rankings.