Even Earnhardt, who has zero top-10 finishes in 14 Sonoma starts, could join the Hendrick fun Sunday. He topped the speed chart for a time in the first practice session Friday, eventually settling for seventh fastest. He was tied for fourth fastest in the final practice, but qualified 17th on Saturday.
And Kasey Kahne? He could be a threat. He won the Sonoma race in 2009.
Regardless, it won't be easy for Hendrick Motorsports to earn its unrivaled sixth six-race win streak in series history.
The list of challengers is robust:
• Marcos Ambrose has won two of the past five road course races -- both at Watkins Glen -- and has a 9.3 career average finish on non-ovals. But he qualified a disappointing 23rd.
• Clint Bowyer has finished sixth or better in the past four road course races, including a victory at Sonoma in 2012. He will start 25th.
• Brad Keselowski has finished second in three of the past five road course events -- all at the Glen. He qualified 13th fastest.
• Kurt Busch, the 2011 Sonoma winner, has finished fourth or better in the past three Sonoma stops. He posted the quickest lap in the first Cup practice Friday and will start the race in the fifth position.
• Jamie McMurray will start from the pole here for the third time in his career -- and second year in a row. He was runner-up on this road course in 2004 but has finished no better than 13th in 10 other starts.
The greatest opponent for the Hendrick contingent Sunday just may be the track itself. You think Talladega is the wild card of the Cup season? Think again. With a Chase berth likely going to the winner, Sunday's shootout promises to be a slugfest.
Rest assured, the gloves will come off.
"This is one of those places where most of the time you shake your head when you're leaving here going, 'Thank goodness it's over,'" said Tony Stewart, a two-time winner on the Cali road course. "The first half of the race is a blast because everybody is being patient and they're driving like they have sense. The closer to the end of the race, the more that goes away and the more guys just try to take advantage of every situation and every hole that's available."
Double-file restarts on this tight, 10-turn circuit add a wild-card element that cannot be predicted. In other words, Johnson said, expect mayhem. And much of it.
"Yes, restarts I think we know that there is going to be chaos," said Johnson, who qualified 22nd fastest. "In [turns] 7 and 11 you go in there and you just put your head against the back of the headrest waiting to get drilled from behind. Once you get spread out and get going, this track -- once you get through the opening lap or two -- we get spread out and it's really an individual race. You are challenging yourself and your car and just getting in that zone and go.
"But restarts just breed so much chaos around here. No one is safe. I have seen guys in eighth or 10th pull out of line to pass and wheel-hop and clean out the guy in second or third. There is nowhere safe on this track on restarts."
Bowyer, one of a number of drivers who could use a win to help get into the Chase, echoed Johnson's take on restarts. The 2012 race winner will try Sunday to give Michael Waltrip Racing its third consecutive victory here. Martin Truex Jr. won the 2013 race in the No. 56 MWR Toyota.