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Johnson stays in mix for run at sixth title

September 22, 2013, Pat DeCola, NASCAR.com

The No. 48 has regained consistency at just the right time

MORE: Full coverage of the Chase for the Sprint Cup

LOUDON, N.H. -- Five-time champions don't worry.

They've seen the ups and downs, enjoyed the hot streaks and endured the droughts.

They know that, in the end, it all balances.

It's starting to come back around for Jimmie Johnson.

The driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet closed the stretch-run leading up to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup with four straight clunkers at Michigan, Bristol, Atlanta and Richmond that saw him average a finish of 36th. He's responded by opening the Chase with a pair of top-five finishes last week at Chicagoland and Sunday in the Sylvania 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway that have him just 18 points behind a blistering Matt Kenseth -- the kind of rebound that would seem unprecedented for every driver in the garage, save for Five-Time and a very small handful of others.

"To open (the Chase) with a five, four is great," Johnson said. "One, one like Matt has is a lot better, but we're in a good spot. … All in all, great day, though. Definitely wanted more, we had a great race car. There at the end I was on the inside lane on those restarts and I'd lose two or three (spots) each time, but it's just part of it, you know, one of those things. But a great performance, great start to the Chase."

Even if Johnson showed no sign of concern after his string of rough starts -- perhaps made easier by knowing that his four regular-season wins would seed him second overall once the playoffs started -- there was a legitimate argument that he might be in danger if he didn't right the ship quickly.

Things got off to a great start at Chicagoland, where a fifth-place finish behind four other Chase drivers was just enough to keep him in the mix in the top three in the standings. With the same one-two of Kenseth and teammate Kyle Busch at the top Sunday at Loudon, the only other driver to finish ahead of Johnson was Greg Biffle, who already had some ground to make up after a mediocre finish at Chicagoland. Johnson's consistency in the first two Chase races has him exactly halfway between Kenseth and fourth-place Carl Edwards -- a cushion that looked unrealistic just over a week ago.

"It was better than we thought it would be. I felt like we were really going to have to scrap for a top-10, maybe a top-five," Johnson said. "Those last couple of restarts lining up on the inside lane just didn't work for anyone. I'd lose a couple of spots and have to get them back. Strong, strong performance. … It took a lot of hard work to get the end result, but we've got a nice race car for these flat tracks. I'm looking forward to Phoenix now. It's good to have a good run here knowing we can go to Phoenix and be competitive, too."

While Johnson is happy to know that his team can build him a race car that can run well on flat tracks, if there was ever a race to be confident about, it comes next week at Dover. During his skid, it was starting to look like Johnson might have to rely on the Monster Mile to be his slump-buster, but instead it'll likely be his NBA Jam-inspired, "He's on fire!" moment as a third-consecutive strong race is, well, all but a slam dunk.

Johnson has seven career victories at the track and finishes in the top five nearly 50 percent of the time. And that's no small sample size, either. It'll be his 24th career start.

After keeping afloat near the top of the standings, Johnson knows he has a shot to cement himself as a true contender next week before Kenseth runs away with the points lead.

"We haven't given up too many points, and we're going to one of my best race tracks next week in Dover," Johnson said. "So I certainly hope to have this Lowe's Chevrolet in Victory Lane over there."


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