News & Media


Johnson falls to lowest-ever Chase standing

September 26, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

LOUDON, N.H. -- It certainly didn't look like Jimmie Johnson on the race track, toiling in the middle of the pack for much of Sunday's event at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, and trying to stay on the lead lap at the end. It certainly didn't look like Jimmie Johnson in the standings, where the driver of the No. 48 car is an uncharacteristic 10th.

But to get back into this Chase, it might take a vintage Jimmie Johnson performance. "Anything is possible," the five-time defending Sprint Cup champion said after a bedeviling afternoon in the second race of the Chase. "Obviously, we need eight great ones from here. We can't run 10th anymore -- we need a bunch of Ws."

"That's all we had all day long. I think [Knaus] was just being optimistic there about what was left in my back pocket. But my suit doesn't have any back pockets."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

Johnson's record-setting championship reign hangs in the balance after a slog of a race left him 10th in the standings, the lowest he's ever been in the Chase. At a track that's historically been very good to him, Johnson finished 18th and as the last car on the lead lap. He's now 29 points behind race winner and new series leader Tony Stewart heading to Dover, where he may need a solid result to keep the drive for a sixth championship intact.

"You've just got to take every race at it comes," said Johnson, who before Sunday had never been lower in the Chase standings than ninth. "You never know what's going to happen. And in my experience in winning five [championships], we lost the points lead due to a wreck in the last lap at Talladega and still came back and won. So anything can happen."

No question, Johnson has proven himself adept at making comebacks when it matters most. He won his first championship in 2006 after falling into a 156-point hole following that aforementioned Talladega accident, and last year rallied from 33 down with just two races remaining to beat Denny Hamlin. But this is a new championship system, one that awards only one point per finishing position, and no one is yet sure how far back is too back. And in those aforementioned years he was capable of ripping off multiple victories -- this year he has only one, coming at Talladega in April.

In fact, Johnson has now gone a full year with just that single victory, given that the one before came at Dover in the second weekend of last season's Chase. "My optimism is still high," he said. "We didn't get the result [Sunday], but if you look at Chicago where we were last week, we didn't get the finish that we should have had, but we had a ton of speed and there are a lot of 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit. These first two races did not start as we had hoped that they would, but eight to go, there's still a lot that can happen."

Sunday, much of what happened was a struggle. Johnson started 10th, and gained some ground the first half of the race, but didn't have the speed he expected from his No. 48 car, and got mired in the back after losing track position. Johnson even bickered once with his crew chief on the radio after Chad Knaus tried to urge a little more out of him. "Dude, your cheerleading is terrible," snapped Johnson, famous for his unflappability. "I'm going to drive my [butt] off. Don't sweat it, just watch."

Knaus tried to egg him on. "Prove it, baby. Come on," the crew chief responded. Johnson wasn't biting. "You're actually annoying instead of helping," the driver shot back. "Just let me go out and do my thing."

But Johnson could only do so much. "I'm going 100 percent regardless of what's being said on the radio," he said after the race. "That's all we had all day long. I think he was just being optimistic there about what was left in my back pocket. But my suit doesn't have any back pockets."

It got worse late in the race, when Johnson tried to squeeze underneath Kyle Busch going into Turn 1. Busch didn't give, and the two cars made side-to-side contact, scraping off one another. Whatever progress Johnson had hoped to make from there was halted by a crippled race car that labored just to stay on the lead lap. It was a fitting finish to a race that left Johnson uncharacteristically staring up at the rest of the Chase field.

Video: Johnson, Busch tangle late at New Hampshire

"It wasn't like he was trying to wreck me or anything," Johnson said of Busch. "He was just being kind of stubborn and [had an] end-of-a-race mentality. ... I think our wheels locked, and it whipped the wheel out of my hand and bent something in the steering up front. It was just the end of a bad day. We didn't have a car like we thought we would. We were really optimistic [Saturday]. After practice, the car was just great. [Sunday], it just didn't have the speed, and then track position was so important and some pit calls didn't work out our way. But we'll take this one on the chin and go on to the next one."