Something up sleeve?

There are two ways this can go for Jimmie Johnson:

He will either be celebrating his sixth consecutive NASCAR title, or …

The other possibility is obvious after some bouncy finishes of late — perhaps there is a flicker of self-doubt in the usually resilient and reliable driver of the Lowe's No. 48.

Johnson is fifth in the points standings — only 13 points behind leader Kevin Harvick — and hasn't won since April. He's in some in-between world right now, not dominating but not out of it. So where do we go from here?

It would be mighty foolish to count him out. Johnson may not be running away from the field, but he has been awfully consistent. And with the new points system, it's all about consistency. Finishing in the top 5 or top 10 every week will get any driver to Homestead, Fla., in late November with a great chance to win the Sprint Cup title.

Winning is important, but equally important is not finishing in the rear of the pack.

Reports of Johnson's demise were greatly exaggerated after his 18th-place finish in New Hampshire. Johnson came back strong at Dover, finishing second to Kurt Busch. Johnson posted his 14th top-10 finish in 20 races at Dover International Speedway, and most importantly, completed his 19th top-10 finish in 2011.

"Are we out of this?" Johnson said, smiling and rubbing his chin after the finish at Dover.

Johnson is smart enough (usually, anyway) not to get caught up in the petty vendettas we see on a weekly basis in NASCAR, where a little bumping and grinding payback may be a good cathartic release but does nothing for your competitive chances.

Certainly Johnson isn't bulletproof. He could be the points leader today if he hadn't run out of fuel on the last lap of the Chase opener in Chicago, had some bump-and-grind issues with Kyle Busch at New Hampshire and struggled with the final two restarts at Dover.

"We left points on the table," Johnson said. "(It's) so tough to know what it's going to take ... look at (Tony Stewart) and what he did the first two races and then the struggles he had. It speaks to how tough these 10 races are going to be and how you think somebody is on fire and the fire can go out."

Still, it would be silly and foolish to count Johnson out of anything.

As veteran NASCAR writer Reid Spencer recently noted: "I wouldn't bet against Jimmie Johnson if he was the bottom seed in a sack race."

My Monopoly money is on Johnson to be there at the end, gunning for another title.

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