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Menzer: Johnson serves notice it's not quite over for him

October 04, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

DOVER, Del. -- As it turns out, the demise of the No. 48 race team of driver Jimmie Johnson was greatly exaggerated.

Johnson didn't win Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway. In fact, he got beat by Kurt Busch -- the driver who candidly described Johnson as his "arch-nemesis" afterward.

"When I heard the footage played, that's some pretty G-rated bickering between driver and crew chief. I found it hard to believe that so many people made so much of it."

--JIMMIE JOHNSON

But Johnson did serve notice that the defense of his string of five Sprint Cup championships is far from crumbling. That had been the rumor -- well, one of them anyway -- swirling around the No. 48 heading into Sunday's event on the challenging 1-mile concrete track.

There also was the one about the chemistry between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus beginning to spoil, based on a supposedly provocative, testy exchange between the pair a week earlier as Johnson struggled to a 18th-place finish at New Hampshire.

Suddenly two races into the 2011 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Johnson wasn't getting along with the guy who has helped him to his five consecutive championships -- and at 10th in the points standings, it was beginning to look like he was out of the hunt for a sixth. Or so some folks seemed to think. Johnson said he found the reports humorous after finishing second to Busch on Sunday.

"When I heard the footage played, that's some pretty G-rated bickering between driver and crew chief. I found it hard to believe that so many people made so much of it," he said of the controversy swirling about his relationship with Knaus.

"I guess at the end of the day people are trying to predict when or what it is that might keep us from winning another championship. And the other thing is because of the success we've had, there's a big magnifying glass on us. So I understand it all, and I didn't pay too much attention to it during the week. I knew if I came out here and did my job in qualifying and on the race track [during the race], we'd get the outside forces working with us again."

Videos: Final Laps | Race Rewind | Busch takes lead

Beat on the restarts

Johnson was all smiles after Sunday's race, despite the fact that he might have been in Victory Lane instead of Busch -- who beat Johnson badly on the final two restarts to seal Busch's own celebration instead.

The smiles came easily because Johnson climbed five spots in the point standings to fifth, only 13 behind new co-leaders Kevin Harvick and Carl Edwards. Busch climbed five spots as well and sits in fourth, leaving Johnson to wonder what might have been if he hadn't admittedly screwed up on the final two restarts.

The first came with Johnson leading on Lap 359 of the 400-lap event. Johnson chose the inside lane on the double-file restart, but spun his tires and got beat on the outside by Busch. A mere seven laps later, with Busch listed as the leader, Johnson started in the outside lane and got beat again.

"When I was leading, I spun the tires and didn't get a good launch," Johnson said. "And then on the second restart, I was just trying to time it with him -- and he got a great restart and I was a car length back, and then I didn't have anything for him going into [Turn] 1."

He took full responsibility for the failing to match Busch's restart prowess when it mattered most.

"I did a really good job up until those last two," Johnson said. "I have to say that when you're the leader, you have a small advantage, because you go when you want. I blew it by spinning the tires. Kurt got a good launch, and we were door-to-door going into [Turn] 1, and he was able to get by on the outside.

"And then the next one, I was going to try to do that same thing back to him, and I was just trying to time it when he was going to accelerate. And I didn't time it right. I had too big of a gap, and fell in behind him going into Turn 1. I put it on me, because the starts I had earlier in the day, regardless of the lane, leading or not, I typically was able to clear guys going into [Turn] 1."

Videos: Johnson reflects on final two restarts | Takes blame

Anybody's game

Johnson was able to smile because he knows he's back in the mix in his title defense -- not that he ever really went anywhere.

Even though he said he found all the rumors of the No. 48's demise comical in the week leading up to the AAA 400, he admitted that he abhors making the kinds of mistakes he did on Sunday's restarts -- because he said it gives all of his challengers hope that this is the year they're going to knock him off.

"You want to dominate," he said. "You want to have them where whenever they see your car in their rear-view mirror, they say, 'Dammit, there he is.' When they see the practice sheets, you want them to see you on top of the board. In qualifying, you want them to see you on top of the [scoring] pylon. Practice, qualifying, the race, you want to dominate it all. If you give anybody hope, they're going to keep fighting.

"This year it's so tough to be consistently good that everybody has hope. ...It's just wacky."

Kurt Busch is among those hanging onto hope that this is his year, and not Johnson's. But make no mistake. By at least being at Busch's side door on those final restarts Sunday, even though he messed up, Johnson served notice that he's not going anywhere quietly in his latest title defense.

"All the stories about the 48 being out of it, it only motivates those guys," Busch admitted. "They are strong, and they always will be. A five-time champion doesn't just happen by accident. Chad Knaus is a great leader and Hendrick [Motorsports] is a great program and Johnson is a very strong and true competitor. To beat him [Sunday] and to come out on top, this is a great victory for us here at Dover."

As with everyone else, Busch also was no doubt left with the distinct feeling that this is far from over from Johnson's perspective.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.