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Is Kenseth ready to dethrone Johnson?

CONCORD, N.C. -- There was an almost deafening silence on Saturday night as crew chief Chad Knaus repeatedly asked Jimmie Johnson if he was all right after the No. 48 Chevrolet slammed hard into the wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway with 18 laps to go.

Finally, Johnson's voice broke through in a soft but dejected tone, "It was my fault."

Well, 48 Haters, you got what you wanted. It will take a minor miracle for Johnson to win a sixth straight title after a 34th-place finish that left him eighth in points, 35 out of the lead.

Could 2003 champion Matt Kenseth, the driver many say led NASCAR to go to a Chase format in the first place, be the heir to the throne?

Kenseth has looked like a champion the last four weeks, particularly on this picture-perfect night when he passed Kyle Busch for the lead with 24 laps remaining and pulled away for his third victory of the season.

The win gave Kenseth consecutive finishes of sixth, fifth, fourth and first and moved him into third place, within seven points of Chase leader and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Carl Edwards, who finished third at Charlotte.

"You can never count Matt out," Busch said. "It seems those Wisconsin guys are awfully quiet most of the time. You know, maybe that's part of it. They'll squeak it out there at the end and leave you in the dust."

Interjected Edwards, "It's all the cheese they eat."

That sounds like one of the dry, witty, answers Kenseth, who is quiet most of the time, would give.

But don't overlook the Cambridge, Wis., native. He spoke loud and clear with his performance in the Chase, and was downright deafening with his dominance once he got past Busch.

Don't forget, had the Chase opener at Chicago not turned into a fuel-mileage race, Kenseth was set to finish no worse than third, with a win easily in sight. And had NASCAR not penalized him 13 positions because J.J. Yeley pushed his out-of-gas car -- without being asked, by the way -- on the final lap, he would have the lead now.

"He's the only one of the three of us that has a championship," Edwards said, referring to himself, Busch and Kenseth.

Don't forget that, either.

If you're not on the Kenseth bandwagon for the way he's driving, then perhaps you should get on it because of his sponsorship woes. He needs help. Primary sponsor Crown Royal is leaving after this season and thus far team owner Jack Roush hasn't found a replacement.

The economy is in such dire straits that instead of celebrating the win and being in contention for the title, Kenseth began his victory speech by putting in a sponsor plug.

"Crown Royal, it's not too late to come back," he said on the ABC broadcast.

Kenseth, for the record, doesn't think it's too late for Johnson to come back, either. He reminded everyone that it was only a month ago that the Hendrick Motorsports driver was in 10th place, 29 points back.

Johnson made all but four of those points up in three weeks.

But Roush pointed out two of the remaining five races are at 1.5-mile tracks like CMS, and no organization is on top of the intermediate track program like his is.

"You'll be very lucky if somebody will give you back a chance to make back up a whole race," Roush said. "[Johnson's] definitely going to have to stand in line for other folks in the top five to have problems for him to get back in it. He won't race his way back into it. He won't finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the racetrack.

"He'll have to wait for them to have trouble."

That's a tall order, particularly when one of the drivers that needs to have trouble is Kenseth. He's one of the most consistent drivers in the garage, and he seldom makes a mistake or puts himself in a bad situation.

Remember his 2003 title run? He had one stretch of 14 races in which he finished outside the top nine only once. He so lulled the racing world to sleep with his consistency and being able to win a title with only one win that detractors still blame him for NASCAR going to a Chase format the following year.

It seemed fitting that he was asked if NASCAR might change the Chase format if he wins the title this year.

"I don't know," Kenseth said with a smile. "Jimmie had to win five of them before they changed it."

It'll probably take something catastrophic like a blown engine or being caught up in somebody else's mess next week at Talladega to keep Kenseth from being a threat until the end.

He's mentally strong. Those little mind games that others play down the stretch won't impact him.

"I have to be honest, I don't know where anybody is at in the points," Kenseth said when asked what impact Johnson's bad finish would have on the Chase. "All we have any control over is our own car and ourselves and what we do. I don't really spend any time on where anybody else finishes."

That was Kenseth using coach-speak.

A few minutes later he was being Kenseth the wise guy, telling a reporter to take the microphone and give his name and affiliation before he would answer his question and then asking crew chief Jimmy Fennig if they still get free drinks from Crown Royal to celebrate later.

It's that balance of focus, humor and confidence that may make Kenseth the driver to beat, more so than those around him who have yet to prove they have what it takes to win a title. He seldom gets out of his car flustered or upset -- as Edwards seemed to be Saturday night when he approached Busch about racing him too hard at the end.

"I'm sure they're going to be a factor down the stretch," Roush said of Kenseth.

Busch could be, too. He led a race-high 111 laps and moved within 18 points of the lead, the first time he's been a factor this late in the Chase.

But Busch, even though he looks like the best driver on the planet at times, still has the demons of past Chases lingering over him. He still hasn't shown completely that he can get through a Chase without incident.

One could argue Kenseth hasn't either, because he's never won a title under the Chase format. One also could argue that Kenseth doesn't have a roller-coaster personality that takes himself out of contention.

Kenseth's idea of getting mad is kicking himself for messing up a couple of restarts when he had a chance to get ahead of Busch earlier.

"I knew we had a shot to win if we could get around Kyle," he said. "I was going to feel pretty bad if I was the weak link."

Kenseth finally got a good restart with 31 laps to go and quickly moved around Edwards for second, then raced Busch hard for several laps, setting him up with a few moves on the high side before finally getting around him on the low.

"He flat-out drove by me like I was standing still," Busch said.

Johnson wasn't so lucky as he tried to get past Ryan Newman. He drifted up into the No. 39 in Turn 1, started to turn sideways, almost saved it and then slammed almost head-on into the wall.

"That was dumb for sure," Johnson said.

Now it will take some doing for Johnson to get back in it. But don't forget that in 2006 Johnson rallied from 156 points down in the old system with six races remaining.

Kenseth was in second place, only six points out of the lead, at that point then and wound up second. So if anybody knows Johnson can rally, it's Kenseth.

"There's a lot of racing to do," Kenseth said. "We're halfway through it, but five races is a lot of races."

But for now, it sure appears Johnson is out and Kenseth could be the guy that replaces him.

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.