Jimmie Johnson's Chase hopes crushed after early Dover trouble

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Though Kevin Harvick took home the checkered flag to advance in the Chase in a win-or-go-home elimination race, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. edged out Jamie McMurray for the Contender Round's final spot by way of a tiebreaker, Jimmie Johnson provided the day's first drama in Sunday's AAA 400 at Dover International Speedway -- and it wasn't the kind of drama the six-time champion was looking for.

Just past the 100-lap mark, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet told the crew "something is breaking" and brought the car to pit road under green on Lap 104. Giving up the 16th spot, Johnson stopped in his pit stall as the crew looked under the rear end.

Unable to make repairs on pit road, Johnson took the car to the garage as the race continued under green-flag conditions. The team made repairs to the car's rear-axle seal and sent him back on the track -- but by the time he returned on Lap 139, he was in last place in the 43-car field, 37 laps down.

Most importantly, despite entering the race in fifth place and 27 points clear of 13th, Johnson came back out on the track on the outside looking in when it came to the top 12 spots who would advance at race's end.

When Jeb Burton and Brett Moffitt had issues and dropped out of the race, Johnson was able to move to 41st on the leaderboard. But those were the only spots the Lowe's driver was able to make up, and when Harvick came across a winner -- and a Contender -- Johnson was eliminated.

Ending the day the deepest of the Chase drivers, Johnson finished 14th in the standings, 12 points behind the cutoff ... and for the second time in as many years, denied what would be a record-tying seventh championship in NASCAR's highest series.

"Definitely disappointed," Johnson said after the race. "It's tough having a very inexpensive axle seal be the culprit and take your championship hopes away. It's racing, I've had mechanicals take me out of championships growing up that led to some success for myself and I'm sure helped me with a championship or two. It's just part of racing. It just shows how critical everything is on a race team. And how important every component is and you can't take anything for granted.

"Heartbreaking for sure, but I don't know what else we can do about it. We just have to go on and try to win races and close out the season strong."

Advancing seemed almost a foregone conclusion for Johnson entering the race at the Monster Mile, where he was won 10 times. Instead, he suffered an early hiccup after running strong early in the race, getting black-flagged for speeding on pit road during the first round of pit stops. The Hendrick Motorsports driver worked his way back through the field to the 16th spot before the mechanical issue occurred.

Johnson won five consecutive titles in from 2006 to 2010 and then his sixth in 2013. Last season, he was eliminated at the completion of the Contender Round, after the sixth race of the Chase.

He stands one championship behind the Sprint Cup record of seven held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt.

--The Associated Press contributed to this report