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From the Marbles

Jimmie Johnson still has a huge mountain to climb, as Phoenix showed

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This is how much a second-to-last finish in the season opener and a 25-point penalty hurt you:

After a race in which he finished fourth and looked to have one of the best cars of the field, Johnson has amassed exactly 18 points. That leaves him in 37th place, 71 points behind leader Denny Hamlin and 45 points, more than one full race, out of 10th place.

That's not so good.

"We tried to make sure we got home and got some points," Johnson said afterward. "Leaving Daytona 42nd on the board wasn't a good way to start the season."

Sure, it's early yet. And yes, Johnson gained 12 spots in one race alone. But this is the Rattlesnake Hill-sized mountain he'll have to climb; the new points system penalizes poor finishes (and negative points totals) far more than it rewards positive ones.

In the wake of Johnson's disastrous finish at the Daytona 500, it was tempting to look at Kevin Harvick's record; in 2011, he too finished second-to-last at Daytona, and within five races was back in the top 10 and within six, in the top 5. How'd he do it? Strangely enough, he too finished fourth at Phoenix in the second race, then followed that up with finishes of 17 (Vegas), 6 (Bristol) and two wins at Fontana and Martinsville. That'd just about do it.

Can Johnson string together three more top-10 finishes in the next four races? Does Michael Waltrip like sponsorship? Does Tony Stewart loathe the media? Does Dale Earnhardt Jr. need a shave? Does ... you get the idea.

It's possible, it's doable, but it's going to be tricky, and Johnson can't afford pit road issues like he had Sunday during attempts to rectify a vibration, which could well have cost him the race.

"I feel like one got away today," Johnson said on Twitter (right before tweeting a photo of an In-N-Out Burger). "Still a solid finish and a lot to be proud of. Come on Vegas!"

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