Jimmie Johnson's main rivals for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series title reckon the reigning champion will be hard to beat this year after the Californian jumped to the top of the standings with his victory at Fontana last weekend.
The Hendrick driver won his second race during the Chase at Auto Club Speedway and he now leads Mark Martin by 18 points, while Juan Pablo Montoya is 58 behind despite both of them averaging a 3.5 finish in the first four races of the playoff series. Johnson has average a 3.75 finish, which is his best after four Chase races compared to his previous three championship seasons. His current total score is the highest he has ever had at this stage in the past four years.
Montoya, the only driver to score top five finishes in every Chase race thus far, is amazed by his current gap to Johnson, which increased massively last week despite him finishing third at Fontana. He says after the next three races it will be clear who is in and who is out of the championship race.
"It's incredible," said Montoya. "We have four or five top fives in a row and I've been losing points to the leader. It is what it is. You ain't going to make any points on anybody. Everybody that runs good is going to be there. You've just got to make sure you don't lose any [points].
"Once you pass Martinsville and Talladega and you look at the points, you say 'OK, what do we need to do for that?' Doesn't matter how many points. We're doing top fives every week. We hope to keep doing that. It would be nice if we can get a freaking win soon and we can move on."
Jeff Gordon, who finished second last weekend and moved up to fifth in the Chase standings, believes there is something special about Johnson and the final 10-race title decider. He believes beating his Hendrick teammate will be a taller order this year.
"They have something magical about the final 10 races," said Gordon of Hendrick's 48 team. "You know, these 10 tracks really suit them. They do an incredible job. What else can you say? They're the best out there. They've won the last three championships. They're going to be hard to beat for this one. Really, unless they make a mistake, I don't see how they lose it."
Despite all the numbers showing that an unprecedented fourth title is in the making for Johnson, the championship leader believes it is still too early to think about it. He expects the pressure to build up as the season draws to an end, but with six races still left, he prefers not to get ahead of himself.
"The last three years have been really special," said Johnson. "Right now we're in a great position, but it's way too early to start thinking about other things.
"I mean, we love where we're at. We love the fact that we're in the points lead. But I don't want to go there. I don't want to think about those things. If we are in the hunt come Homestead, come Phoenix, it's going to be the thoughts, the emotions, all of that is going to be so heavy on all of our shoulders that it's going to be a tough grind.
"But right now it's so early – enough to where we can kind of brush it off and say, OK, we did what we needed to Let's go to Charlotte.' As we get closer to the end, there is no doubt it's going to ratchet up."
For the past three years, Johnson has never surrendered the lead in the championship once he has vaulted into it during the Chase. Last year, despite his stats not being as impressive as they are this season, he took the Chase lead in the third race of the playoffs, and claimed his third consecutive title seven weeks later.
Next up on the Chase schedule are Charlotte and Martinsville, statistically the best two tracks for Johnson, as he has won 11 out of his 45 career victories at these two venues.