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Can anyone stop the champion's win streak?

"A four-peat for Jimmie Johnson? For NASCAR's sake, let's hope not."

- Daily News, Feb. 12, 2009

THE ABOVE was our lead a year ago. Well, Johnson completed his unprecedented four-peat last year and NASCAR has survived. Now, he's going for five in a row. Five in a row!

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  • Johnson's No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team, led by crew chief Chad Knaus, is intact, which is bad news for his racing rivals. Clearly, Johnson is capable of winning again. Until another team proves it can topple "King James," he is the man to beat.

    As I wrote after Johnson clinched his 2009 championship, his four-peat achievement is one of the greatest in sports history. But it's really time for another team to muscle its way to the top. Here are my candidates to git 'r done:

    * Tony Stewart: Led last year's points race through the first 26 races in his first season as a co-owner. Stewart won one race in the Chase (Kansas), but finished sixth in points . . . He and teammate Ryan Newman drive Hendrick-powered Chevrolets, giving them an edge over the competition.

    * Denny Hamlin: He won two of the last five '09 Chase races, and finished second and third in two others. His strong finish makes him a title contender this year.

    * Mark Martin: Although, at age 51, he's better than ever, time is running out for Martin to win his first Cup title. He's been the runner-up five times.

    * Kyle Busch: His failure to make last year's Chase was a huge letdown for such a talented racer. Busch has a championship-caliber team.

    * Jeff Gordon: The four-time Cup titlist hasn't won a championship since 2001. He's still one of the best racers on the circuit and says he's eager to halt teammate Johnson's stranglehold on the series.

    Johnson's success is attributed to his racing skill, the best crew chief in Knaus, an excellent team and superior equipment. Johnson also has had more than his share of racing luck. He's managed to avoid flat tires, running over debris on the race tracks and getting caught in car wrecks, although he will drive a backup car in Sunday's opener after being involved in one during yesterday's practice.

    Racing usually is cyclical, with competitors catching up with the winners. That hasn't happened, though, in Johnson's 4-year reign.

    Johnson insists he is nervous before every season.

    "I use fear to motivate myself," he said last week at Daytona. "I'm entering this year saying we're going to get beat. That way, I work as hard as I can, the team works as hard as they can.

    "I typically start the season with nerves, [thinking] am I going to remember how to do this? There's a rhythm of driving a race car. Over the years, making mistakes, doing things, when I see a situation develop fear tells me, 'You've been there, don't get into this.' "

    Johnson, only 34, knows his streak will end some time.

    "The commitment we have made to this race team has made the difference the last 4 years," he said. "As long as the commitment's there, I will be proud of whatever the results are. I know at some time we're going to get beat. I don't want it to be anytime soon."

    Gordon helped Johnson get started in NASCAR. They are teammates and friends, but Gordon, 38, is eager to replace Johnson as the Cup Series champion.

    "I'm tired of seeing those guys win and being up there on the stage," Gordon said. "I'm truly happy for him, and I think he's a great champion and a great race-car driver. [But] I want to win."

    Send e-mail to fleiscb@phillynews.com

    BILL FLEISCHMAN For the Daily News
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