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Paulk: Jimmie Johnson still heavy Sprint Cup favorite

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 11:18 p.m.

Ordinarily I'm one to pull for the underdog. Rarely will you catch me betting on a heavy favorite at either the horse track or racetrack.

Sometimes, however, I'm conflicted when it comes to pulling for the underdog and appreciating the greatness of superior athletes. Arguably no one has been as dominant as Tiger Woods, Serena Williams and Jimmie Johnson. But no one has captivated our admiration and scorn more than Johnson, a five-time Sprint Cup champion who is positioned to win a sixth title this season.

Whether you love or hate the man who is likely to eclipse the record seven Cup titles of Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, it's clear Johnson is far and away the lead pony in a field loaded with thoroughbreds.

For all NASCAR officials' talk about parity the past several years, Johnson has reminded us he has no equal. He has a 31-point lead over Carl Edwards in the points standing, a margin that would have been greater had he not jumped the gun on the restart at Dover or blown a tire at Michigan International Speedway last Sunday.

Johnson already has three wins in 15 races this season. Despite the slip-up at Michigan, the No. 48 Chevrolet looked unbeatable for much of the day.

Johnson's performance this season is reflective, too, of how the heavily funded teams — Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing — continue to distance themselves from those running in the middle of the pack.

While parity exists within the IndyCar Series, nothing could be further from the truth on the Sprint Cup circuit. The big-money teams have won 14 of 15 races to leave cash-strapped teams fighting uphill.

I'm all for balance in the NFL and NBA. It's good that small-market teams such as Oklahoma City and San Antonio can reach the finals against the powerful Miami Heat.

Yet when it comes to racing, Johnson's dominance appears good for the sport. I find his dominance more appealing than parity.

If there's a place where the competitive gap has narrowed some, it is the road course in Sonoma, Calif. Almost anyone can win there Sunday, including road specialist Marcos Ambrose.

“If you look down the sheet of people who can win, there are at least 20 drivers,” Ambrose said prior to Friday's qualifying. “It could be 30-odd drivers who have a chance to win.”

A year ago, Clint Bowyer captured the checkered flag ahead of Tony Stewart, Kurt Busch, Brian Vickers and Johnson. Ambrose, winner of the past two road races at Watkins Glen, finished eighth.

“I think the level of competition continues to get stronger in NASCAR,” Ambrose said. “There's more money in the sport and more at stake, so everyone is putting a lot of effort in, and the level of driver on road courses is as high as anywhere I've seen, so there's no gimme.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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