In this photo made Oct. 22, 2011, NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson climbs out of his car following qualifying for the Good Sam Club 500 auto race at the Talladega Superspeedway in Talladega, Ala. Is Johnson out of title contention? Rival team owner Jack Roush thought so after Charlotte. A 26th-place finish at Talladega probably didn't change many minds (AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- It's easy for outsiders to cross Jimmie Johnson off the list of title contenders. They don't work side by side with the five-time defending NASCAR champion every week, and have no idea just how hard it is to beat him.
It's a whole different story, though, when those inside the NASCAR garage publicly dismiss him the way rival team owner Jack Roush did two weeks ago at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"You can't expect to get a mulligan," Roush said after Johnson's 34th-place finish at Charlotte.
"You'll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race. I thought that Jimmie Johnson would be a factor in it and he'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."
Johnson has indeed taken a tumble since his win three races ago at Kansas pushed him to third in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship standings. He had a hard wreck at Charlotte that cost him five spots in the standings, but as he headed to Talladega Superspeedway, where he had won in the spring, it was conceivable that he'd make up some ground.
Instead, Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. waited too long to make their move through the field, and Johnson finished 26th.
He's now ranked seventh in the standings, 50 points behind leader Carl Edwards, with four races remaining in the Chase.
"We just keep grinding them out," Johnson said after Talladega. "We'll just keep fighting. Every position counts. Every spot counts. And I want to finish as high as I can in the points. If it isn't the championship, I want to finish as high as I can possibly finish. So we're going to keep fighting hard."
Johnson's been counted out before, and he's been counted out this year.
In last season's Chase, Denny Hamlin had him on the ropes until he coughed away the title in the final two races. Johnson, ignoring what Hamlin did each week, simply concentrated on his own performance and was in position to capitalize when Hamlin faltered.
This year has been below average by Johnson's standards, and with just one win in the "regular season" people were ready to write him off after a disappointing run at New Hampshire in Round 2 of the Chase.
Those same people sure looked silly a week later when a second-place finish at Dover moved him up five spots in the standings to fifth. Then his win at Kansas had the points lead well within reach.
Just like that, it slipped through his fingers, and his entire comeback came undone.
But his last three weeks should be evidence enough that it can all change in the blink of an eye.
"It can happen to any of us," Edwards said. "Obviously, the more points we can get on the guys in the Chase the better, but it's obvious that could happen to anyone. He could go on a tear and be leading the points in three or four weeks, so I will never count him out."
Up next is Martinsville Speedway, where Johnson is a six-time winner and, along with Hamlin, considered one of the best active drivers at the Virginia track. He's got 17 top-10 finishes in 19 career starts, and had been nearly untouchable there since a 35th-place finish in his first career start at the track.
He was off a bit in the spring, with his 11th-place finish his worst at Martinsville since his 2002 debut. Johnson is returning to the track this weekend with the same chassis, and looking forward to the weekend.
"Quirky tracks have always worked for me, and this track certainly is that," he said. "When I first came here, the first year or year and a half, there was no way I thought this track would be one that I liked. But in time, and in learning how to drive it, there is just one way to really get around here. And a lot of tracks have a lot of other options but there's one very specific line you have to run and when a guy finds it, and he can set his car up to it, you go and go and go for years."
Still, Roush wasn't so sure two weeks ago that anything matters from here on out for Johnson, particularly with the way the Roush Fenway Racing cars are running. Edwards and Matt Kenseth are ranked 1-2 in the standings, and next week's race is at Texas, where Kenseth won in the spring.
"We are at the top of our game as far as our mile-and-a-half program," Roush said. "There's other teams that have got good programs, but nobody has got a better mile-and-a-half program than us. In my 24 years, I've never had better cars for the championship stretch than we have got and we are anxious to see how it's going to work out.
"I just think that the hard work everybody's done is paying off, and we are getting what we deserve."