It finally happened. Jimmie Johnson flinched in the Chase.
With 18 laps to go in Saturday night's Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Johnson found himself just outside the top 10, trailing Carl Edwards and Kevin Harvick, the two drivers ahead of him in the standings. Perhaps feeling a sense of urgency, Johnson ducked under Ryan Newman in an effort to make a pass. Johnson could see Harvick just in front of Newman, adding to the urgency to make the pass sooner rather than later.
But as he steered underneath Newman, Johnson lost control of his car. It wriggled, turned sideways, then shot straight up the track and slammed hard into the wall nose first. In that brief moment, Johnson's five-year reign came to a screeching halt: A sixth straight championship went from a strong likelihood to the longest of shots.
Johnson finished 34th – a result that overshadowed Matt Kenseth's victory – and now trails Edwards, who took third, by 35 points with five races to go.
"The No. 39 [Newman] just got tight on my right rear quarter panel getting into Turn 1 and just took the air off the side of my car and around I went," Johnson explained. "From there I was trying to save the slide, got pointed back to the fence and hammered the wall."
One way or the other, this Chase will be remembered for Johnson: either for a miraculous comeback or for his remarkable string of championships finally coming to an end.
How big of a deficit is 35 points? Under the old points system, used in every Chase prior to this one, it roughly translates to a 120-point margin, which has some relevance. In 2006, Year 1 of Johnson's reign, he left Charlotte seventh in the standings, trailing by 146 points with five races to go. He finished the season going first, second, second, second, ninth to win the title by a comfortable margin of 56 points over Kenseth.
Not only is a comeback doable, but Johnson has battled back from a larger margin.
"We just have to go racing," Johnson said. "That is all there is to it. There are five races left, and right now all we have are those five races. … Promise you, this team and myself, we won't quit. We will go for every point we can from here on out and hopefully we are still champions at the end of the year."
Having Johnson deep in their rearview mirrors likely eases some of the tension for the seven drivers – likely five legitimate hopefuls – jockeying to dethrone the king. Edwards' lead over Harvick grew to five points, but shrunk over Kenseth (seven points back) and Busch, who's now 18 points back after finishing second Saturday. The others still in contention are Tony Stewart (-24 points), Brad Keselowski (-25) and Kurt Busch (-27).
In the wake of his drivers finishing first and third Saturday night, team owner Jack Roush all but declared Kenseth and Edwards the drivers to beat.
"We're at the top of our game as far as the mile-and-a-half program," said Roush, pointing out that two of the final five races are on 1.5-mile tracks. "There's other teams that have got good programs but nobody's got a better mile-and-a-half program than us."
Roush also pointed out his team's perfection Saturday, saying you can't have a part break, have a tire go down, make a mistake on pit road or wreck and expect to "get a mulligan."
"You'll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race," he said. "[Johnson's] definitely going to have to stand in line and wait for the other folks in the top five to have problems for him to get back in it. He won't race his way back in it. He won't finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the racetrack. He'll have to wait for them to have trouble, I think."
The irony is that Edwards has suffered two miscues on pit road in the Chase, while teammate Greg Biffle (not a Chase contender) had to serve a pass-through penalty for a loose lug nut that cost him a shot at the win. And the mid-race decision to take four tires that Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus said put them in a position to have to pass Newman – Kenseth's crew chief Jimmie Finnig made the exact same call on the same pit stop.
The difference is the Roush boys were able to rally and ultimately minimize the damage. Johnson, for once in the Chase, wasn't so fortunate. One mistake could cost him the title, which, if anything, should further highlight the difficulty of winning five straight.
Johnson is by no means out of it. One wreck next Sunday at Talladega could be all the "trouble" he needs for the leaders to come back to him.
But there's no denying he's wounded – badly. He did it to himself. Now it will take some magic for Johnson to keep his streak alive.
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