MILWAUKEE -- For one reason, and one reason only, Jimmie Johnson hasn't been singled out as the consensus favorite to win a fourth consecutive NASCAR championship this season.

The men most mentioned, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch, know why.

And certainly Johnson understands:

"It's never been done before."

But separate that one, simple fact from the equation, and what do you have?

What has changed so dramatically as to slow Johnson and his own dynasty within a Hendrick Motorsports dynasty?

What has happened that will guarantee more speed or more luck to Edwards or Busch or to the next tier of contenders or delusional pretenders?

"It's not annoying me," Johnson said of the sort of slight that seems to irritate other athletes. "I mean, everybody is entitled to their opinion, and if you look at the odds it's certainly stacked up against us winning.

"I'm just speaking from my perspective and my heart that I truthfully think we've got a great shot at a fourth championship ... especially if you look at our stats and what we've done over the last three years."

Ah, the statistics.

Johnson has won more races in the past three seasons -- 22 -- than any other two drivers combined.

More important, he and his team have peaked when it counts the most.

Last year, Johnson fended off Edwards by breezing through the 10-race Chase for the Sprint Cup shootout with no finish worse than 15th. In 2007, he rattled off four consecutive victories, and in 2006 Johnson put together a five-race span with four runner-up finishes and a victory.

"I thought that was a little bit interesting at the end of the season when Jimmie won the championship and people were actually down that he won the championship," said Edwards, the runner-up whose disappointment has been salved by a two-month break.

"Probably a lot of people just want to see a good race."

The season began Friday in Daytona Beach, Fla., with practice for the nonpoints Budweiser Shootout. Qualifying for the Daytona 500 was scheduled for Saturday and the 51st running for Feb. 15.

Although there's no clearinghouse for preseason predictions, most seem to center on Edwards and Busch as much as on Johnson. A poll of 198 media members picked Edwards first, Johnson second and Busch third.

By many accounts, Edwards enjoyed the strongest 2007 and definitely the most consistent. Of his series-high nine victories, three came in the first seven races, three in a four-race midseason stretch and three in the final four.

Two Chase races made the difference. He triggered a multiple-car crash at Talladega and then suffered ignition problems the next week. He lost by 69 points.

"In 2009 the thing that I think I have to be better at, we all have to be better at, is what Jimmie Johnson does so well," Edwards said. "That's not hurting yourself, never being the reason you lose a position."

Busch, meanwhile, spent time at both ends of the spectrum.

He won eight times in the first one-third of the season to build what would have been a demoralizing lead under the old point system. Then the points were reset for the Chase, Busch's advantage disappeared and his luck and confidence followed.

"I didn't let it get away. I don't think the team let it get away," said Busch, who ended up 10th. "During the middle part of the year sometimes it was too easy to win a race. Then you could kind of see the luck wearing away.''

Other drivers seen as the most likely possible challengers to Johnson include two of his teammates, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin; Greg Biffle of Roush Fenway; Denny Hamlin, who became the senior driver at Joe Gibbs Racing with the departure of Tony Stewart; and Richard Childress Racing's Kevin Harvick.