Brant James
Tuesday September 21st, 2010

Jimmie Johnson's 25th-place finish at New Hampshire on Sunday might have been the real beginning of the end of one of the most epic periods of dominance in NASCAR history. Or it could have been the latest travail in what would be Johnson's most difficult -- and possibly rewarding -- of a record five consecutive championships.

1. Momentum is lost. Johnson's summer of uncharacteristically ordinary performance, mechanical issues and pit stop problems -- including his sublime speeding penalty, which likely cost him a win at Dover -- had apparently yielded to his typical fall flourish with third-place finishes at Atlanta and Richmond. He was peaking at the right time, as usual, gaining momentum, and reinforcing the notion within the No. 48 team, and without, that he would make a move when moves counted most. All that inertia is blunted after Sunday. Sure, he was caught up in two accidents not of his making, and his No. 48 Chevrolet was a contender earlier in the race, but some of the same old summer doldrums recurred, namely a loose wheel on a late pit stop. It feels like he's starting all over again.

2. Balances are coming due. The slate is due for resolution. Johnson himself has remarked about the wonder of the run, the coupling of ultra performance, fortune and circumstance. His run has been historic. It cannot last much longer.

3. Competition is closer now than at any point in his reign. Hendrick Motorsports, particularly Johnson's team, has been the gold standard coveted, copied and pursued for almost eight years in a highly competitive Sprint Cup garage. The team won 48 of 144 Sprint Cup races between 2006 and 2009, including 10 by Johnson in 2007. This year, Johnson won five in the regular season to tie Denny Hamlin for the series lead, but his three teammates went winless. Only Jeff Gordon joined him in the Chase. Richard Childress Racing made massive strides, meanwhile, putting all three drivers in the playoffs as Kevin Harvick topped the standings for most of the regular season. Clint Bowyer snatched the Chase opener at New Hampshire on fuel mileage. A late-season blitz -- such as when Johnson won four of the final six in 2004 to miss a first title by eight points, or won four of the final five in 2007 -- just may not be possible anymore.

4. Too many cars to pass. He's simply too far behind, according to a brief history of the Chase champions. Kurt Busch left New Hampshire tied for the lead with Dale Earnhardt Jr., (ah, memories) after winning the opener in 2004; Tony Stewart (2005) led after finishing second at New Hampshire; Johnson was ninth in points, 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick after opening 2006 with a 39th-place result. He's the statistical aberration. Johnson left tied for the points lead after finishing fourth at New Hampshire in 2007, and did the same in 2008 after a second-place run. Last year Johnson was runner-up in the race again, and in second place in points, 35 behind teammate Mark Martin.

5. Had a baby. See, everyone was right: 3 a.m. feedings milk the champion juice right out of you.

1. Been there, won that. Johnson finished 39th at New Hampshire to start the Chase in 2006 and still went on to win his first of four straight championships. There has yet to be a perfect Chase run by anyone but Johnson. Kurt Busch blew an engine late in the 2004 Chase and finished 42nd, nearly allowing Johnson to win what would have been his first title. Stewart finished 25th at Charlotte in a bad night for tires in 2005, but held on. Johnson is the only driver to come from as many as 90 points and seven places back after New Hampshire to win a title. He was 156 behind Jeff Burton after his second poor finish of the 2006 Chase, 24th at Talladega in the fourth playoff race and still won the title by unleashing a win and four runner-up finishes in the next five. "Teams like (Johnson's) are so good at rebounding. You can't ever count those guys out," teammate Jeff Gordon said.

2. He has 29 wins at the nine tracks left in the Chase, since 2005. His average finish (9.6) is nearly three positions better than the next-best, again, Gordon, giving him a series-best average of 147.3 points earned at those tracks. He'd have to improve that average to surpass the point total needed to win all but one of the Chases so far, but he'd be in the mix at the very least. And consider his ability to deliver the explanation point: winning four of the last six races in 2004 and four of the last five in 2007 to catch and dispirit teammate Gordon.

3. Pressure is off. Johnson would have much preferred the "oh-God-Jimmie's-flicked-the-switch-we're-doomed-we're-doomed" storyline, but this is the one he's stuck with for now. Crew chief Chad Knaus and Johnson, unencumbered by the concerns of points racing, is a pretty compelling notion.

4. Company matters. There is no question the Sprint Cup garage has collectively narrowed the performance gap between itself and Hendrick Motorsports, but Johnson's teammates were collectively competitive on Sunday. Johnson ran among the leaders in the early stages of the race before a pit stop, and then two on-track incidents sunk him. Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished fourth, and Gordon was sixth. Martin was caught up in some on-track trouble and relegated to 25th. A team-wide surge might indicate Hendrick is on to something that could benefit the four-time defending champion.

5. Because neither Denny Hamlin, Tony Stewart nor Kevin Harvick won at New Hampshire. Hamlin can derive great pleasure and satisfaction in recovering from a spin with 86 laps left to finish second and maintain the points lead. Harvick, who was deriding the entire team's performance as he languished deep in the field at several points, was heartened by a fifth-place finish that set him up at third in points. "We hung in there, we battled, and we came away with a top-5 finish," he said. "We need to get better, and we will." Stewart seemed at peace enough with running out of fuel in the final distance while leading. Victory by any of those -- especially Stewart, a two-time Cup champion, and Harvick a two-time Nationwide champion -- would have been far worse for Johnson than the one collected by Bowyer, who began the race 11th in points and sprung to second. Stewart and Harvick have won titles at NASCAR's highest level -- and Hamlin was the anointed Johnson challenger this season. Every bit of momentum a proven contender fails to attain is a boon for Johnson. GALLERY: NASCAR FANS AT NEW HAMPSHIRE

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