Johnson has way of peaking at right time, and Richmond win may be sign

RICHMOND, Va. -- Just as Jimmie Johnson was asked if he's the favorite to win his third straight Chase, Kyle Busch walked into the room and answered for him: "Yes."

That's Kyle Busch, mind you, the guy who dominated much of this season until Carl Edwards took command for a stint in August.

But now it's Johnson who is peaking -- at the perfect time to make a serious run at becoming the first three-peat NASCAR champion since Cale Yarborough 30 years ago.

And Johnson was by no means point-racing as he won a spectacular late-race duel with Tony Stewart.

With 11 laps left in Sunday's Chevy Rock & Roll 400, the jump-off race into the Chase, Stewart mounted a side-by-side challenge to Johnson, and they raced like that until Johnson was able to break clear with only three laps left.

"That's how you want to win a race," Johnson said. "Going against the best in the business -- and Tony is certainly one of those guys -- racing your butt off, side by side."

The duel was a wild ride of sheer ecstasy for Johnson, as "I thought about the fact that I didn't have anything to lose whether I finished the race or not."

He had come into the race as a lock for the Chase, and he left here as the third seed, only 40 points behind leader Busch and 10 behind Edwards.

"I also thought about the fact that Tony hasn't won this year and wanted 10 points [the seeding bonus for a win]," Johnson said. "So all that came into it, and I just drove my ass off.

"And luckily he didn't get to me."

If Stewart had gotten a bumper or a fender to him, Johnson conjectured, "I'm pretty sure I would have ended up tore up."

But Stewart ended up as the one all torn up -- emotionally. As he parked his car after losing, Stewart flung his helmet, then his gloves, then the steering wheel before he climbed out of his car.

Half an hour later in the media center, Stewart wasn't a bit happier -- just less animated in his ferocious disappointment.

Stewart wouldn't even go into detail about the duel, in which he rode the inside of the track while Johnson mostly stayed high to hold him off.

"We got down there and we couldn't get by," Stewart huffed. "We were able to get a run and get under him, and we had a great race."

Pressed, Stewart vented on the media some more: "Could we just, for one week, just leave it as we just ran second? And we had a hard-fought battle? And we just fell short? That's the moral of the story.

"Shoot, we could sit here for hours and try to dissect why we didn't win the race."

Stewart left still fuming, and then came Johnson, followed closely by Busch to answer the very first question thrown at Johnson, about being the favorite.

At first Busch made light of his interruption: "I was just being sarcastic, answering the question for him."

But then Busch turned serious enough to validate his original answer.

"They have been strong," he said of Johnson and his No. 48 team, which notched their second straight win and fourth of the season.

More significantly, Johnson's latest wins have come on an intermediate track, at Fontana, Calif., and on a short track here.

"If I was in Jimmie's spot, I'd say, 'heck, yeah,'" about being the favorite, Busch said.

Johnson acknowledged that he's peaking just right -- "It's hard not to feel that way," he said -- and that Sunday's performance was optimal.

"Momentum is certainly something we are looking at and trying to carry, but more than anything, I think we're just confident in our stops, and what I'm doing on the track, and the way we can adjust on the car."

Only a couple of weeks ago, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, had complained he felt too limited by NASCAR rules on the new car.

"We even showed up here a bit off in practice on Friday," Johnson said, "and we worked throughout the practice and got it right."

But he steadfastly refused to elaborate on Busch's naming of him as the favorite. Mainly he sounded like he was talking to himself.

"I'm trying to show up at next week's race scared," he said. "Worried about 11 other guys [in the Chase], and doing my part.

"And I have confidence in what my abilities are, and what my team is capable of, and the packages we have put together in the last five or six months -- short track, big track, all of it."

Yarborough is the only NASCAR driver thus far to win three straight championships, from 1976 to '78, driving for legendary owner Junior Johnson.

From here on out in the Chase, "we'll try to make history," Johnson said, "or be part of history, with what Cale did before."

Ed Hinton is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at edward.t.hinton@espn3.com.