Loudon, NH – Jimmie Johnson is down but certainly not out in extending sixth straight title.
It's been a frustrating start for Johnson in the playoffs. In last week's Chase-opener at Chicagoland, he ran out of fuel during the last two laps but managed to cross the finish line in 10th. He wasn't as fortunate on Sunday at New Hampshire, where a late-race run-in with Kyle Busch led to an 18th-place run.
Right now, Johnson sits 10th in the rankings, 29 points behind new leader Tony Stewart, who has won the first two Chase races.
"My optimism is still high," Johnson said. "We didn't get the result [at New Hampshire], but if you look at Chicago where we were last week, we didn't get the finish that we should have had, but we had a ton of speed. There are a lot of 1.5-mile tracks on the circuit. These first two races did not start as we had hoped that they would, but with eight to go, there's still a lot that can happen."
Johnson has endured a sluggish start to the Chase but gone on to win the championship in the past. In 2006, he held the eighth spot in points after the fourth race in the playoffs (Talladega at the time), but bounced back nicely with top-five finishes in five of the last six events to win his first title.
He trailed late in last year's Chase but came from behind in the final two races -- Phoenix and Homestead -- to beat Denny Hamlin for the championship.
This year's Chase might be the toughest one yet for Johnson, especially if Stewart continues on his roll.
One thing is for sure. Johnson doesn't need another repeat of New Hampshire, where hardly anything went right for him...even his communication with crew chief Chad Knaus.
Johnson snapped at Knaus over the team radio late in the race when Knaus tried to play cheerleader.
"Dude, you're cheerleading is terrible," Johnson said. "I'm going to drive my [butt] off. Don't sweat it, just watch. It's actually annoying instead of helping, so just let me go out and do my thing."
Then there was the contact with Busch with 20 laps to go, which almost turned out to be a disastrous finish for Johnson at New Hampshire.
"It wasn't like he was trying to wreck me or anything; he was just being kind of stubborn and 'end of a race' mentality," Johnson said. "When we got together the second time, I think our wheels locked, and it whipped the wheel out of my hand and bent something in the steering up front. It was just the end of a bad day."
Surprisingly, Johnson has won only one race so far this season, and he barely got that victory, as he beat Clint Bowyer by the slimmest of margins --- 0.002 seconds to be exact -- in the April 17 race at Talladega.
Most of the remaining tracks in the Chase have been good ones for Johnson, particularly next weekend's race at Dover. Johnson has six wins there, including three of the last five events. He has also led the most laps in each of those five previous races.
Johnson has his share of wins at Charlotte, Martinsville and Phoenix as well.
"Obviously, we need eight great [races] from here," he said. "We can't run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of 'W's'."
Johnson is far from being out of this Chase, since he certainly knows how to get those W's when it counts the most.