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Jonathan Baum
Yahoo! Sports

FONTANA, Calif. – A few months back, it had been decided by whomever decides these things that this was Jeff Gordon's year.

A month or so ago, some left the Gordon camp to declare 2007 a season belonging to Tony Stewart.

And within the last several weeks, support for the likes of Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards began to grow when it came to title prognostication.

Somewhere along the way, people seemed to forget about Jimmie Johnson.

You know, the guy who still is the Nextel Cup champion.

And yet here he was at California on Sunday night, scoring his series-leading fifth win of the season, officially punching his ticket into the Chase and clinching at least a share of the top seed once NASCAR's playoffs begin in two weeks at New Hampshire.

"(It's) very satisfying (to secure the top seed). The season is all about a championship, especially when you get in the Chase," Johnson said. "We're fortunate to be in that situation. It's time for the pressure to pick up (and) the hard work to start. And my guys are ready for it."

Just over a month ago, it was far from certain whether Johnson and his No. 48 guys were ready for anything resembling another run at the title.

Johnson actually brought himself plenty of attention in the first few months of the season, winning early and often and tallying bunches of points. But after collecting four wins and a slew of top-10s, Johnson began to struggle.

Starting at Dover in June, Johnson suffered through an eight-race stretch during which he collected just two top-10s and finished 37th or worse three times. And in that span, he fell from second in points down to ninth.

Sure, Johnson still had 265 points separating him from the wrong side of the top 12 who make the Chase, but the team's struggles – some coming during crew chief Chad Knaus' six-week suspension for rules violations at Sonoma – were cause for concern.

Really, the slide mostly was due to bad luck. Once in a while this team would miss a setup, but usually it was a wreck or fluke blown tires and the like that would do them in.

But that concern had more to do with the fact that Johnson and Co. actually were running just fine.

"We've had great race cars," Johnson said. "(But) if you have four or five races in a row, you can lose a lot of ground."

And losing points with good cars had Johnson wondering what would happen if the team started to put lemons on the track.

"I was more nervous that we've been competitive and have had poor finishes, and it's easy to run into a slow spot in the season and not really run well," he said.

The end results weren't there, and team owner Rick Hendrick wondered if his teams had peaked too early, but Johnson's group hadn't forgotten how to race. And knowing that was enough to keep Johnson optimistic – as was the fact that he has been here before. With that, there was no fear that he wouldn't find his way back to victory lane.

"We've been close; we've been running good," he said. "Historically we get off to a great start, have a slow summer and finish up strong, and it looks like for whatever reason, our cycle is coming back."

Turns out, he was right to keep his head up. Expect that cycle to stay true, too.

After the 39th-place finish at Indianapolis that left Johnson ninth in points, there was a fifth-place run at Pocono a month ago. Then came back-to-back thirds at Watkins Glen and Michigan.

And just forget about last weekend's struggles in Bristol and skip to Sunday's win, which leaves Johnson with a series-leading five wins and the top Chase seed within his grasp (teammate Jeff Gordon can tie Johnson by winning next weekend at Richmond in the final pre-Chase race).

"I'm glad we are back in victory lane," he said. "I didn't think we wouldn't get back in victory lane, but it is nice to get back.

"We've got that all turned around now and looking good."

So the 2007 Chase will begin just how the 2006 version ended: with Johnson on top. And that is thanks to Sunday's win – and the new Chase points format – which perhaps couldn't have come at a better time.

"We really needed this win because the 2 car (Kurt Busch) and Tony (Stewart) have just been coming on," team owner Rick Hendrick said. "It's probably going to be one of the toughest Chases with a lot of good cars. It's going to be a dog fight."

Include those two drivers with Johnson among the top championship contenders, along with teammates Gordon and Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth, Jeff Burton … well, you get the picture.

Hendrick no longer is worried about his teams having peaked; he knows they are running well. And to say Johnson is a title favorite is reasonable.

But to assert that he absolutely is the prohibitive favorite, however, is not.

"The competition is just really, really tight out there," Hendrick said.

That doesn't mean Johnson isn't feeling good about his prospects for a second consecutive Cup championship.

"There is obviously a lot of racing left and a lot of good teams fighting for this Chase, (but) we are hitting our stride at the right time," Johnson said. "I am very satisfied."

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