HE IS THE anti-Junior, a driver who has already proved he can win often and when it matters most. Since picking up his second straight Cup trophy last November, Jimmie Johnson has led a glamorous life. He has taken swings with the glitterati in his own celebrity golf tournament, partied with P. Diddy and Nick Lachey at the Super Bowl and chatted up the President at the White House. But the most exciting development during Johnson's off-season? Although a handful of his crew left, he retained the core members of his number 48 team, which means he is supremely positioned to become NASCAR's first three-peat champion since Cale Yarborough did it 30 years ago.
"I want to win three in a row, then look for a fourth and keep rolling if I can," says Johnson. "We've put pressure on the field to step it up to another level."
Indeed, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, haven't finished lower than fifth in the standings since they first joined forces on the Cup circuit in 2002, and they've won more races (11) and had more top 10 finishes (28) in the Chase than any other driver-crew chief combo since the playoff format was adopted in 2004. Their knack for peaking at the right time—Knaus is careful not to overwork his crew in the summer months, in order to avoid burnout before the Chase in the fall—makes the Lowe's Chevy team the preseason favorite to hoist the Cup again in November. They got off to a good start on Sunday, qualifying on the pole for this weekend's Daytona 500.
How difficult is it to beat Johnson? Not only is he as mistake-free on the race track as any driver in the sport—"I think I've seen Jimmie screw up twice in the last three years, which is really saying something," says one longtime spotter—but he also excels in the Car of Tomorrow, which will be used full time in 2008. In 16 CoT starts last season, Johnson had the most wins (five) and the second-best average finish (6.9) of any driver on the Cup circuit, behind Hendrick teammate Jeff Gordon (5.5). Even scarier: The 32-year-old Johnson is entering the prime of his racing career. Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Darrell Waltrip, after all, didn't win their second championships until they were 35; Yarborough was 38 when he got that third straight title in 1978.
"I feel like we're getting better every season we're together," says Knaus. "I honestly believe we haven't reached our potential yet, not even close."