- Associated Press - Friday, September 30, 2011

DOVER, DEL. (AP) - Go ahead. Count out Jimmie Johnson.

After all, he’s had an atypical-Johnson season.

His wins have dried up, his spot in the Sprint Cup standings is worthy of a double-take, and a run of dominance that staked his claim as one of NASCAR’s all-time great champions has vanished.

The V stands for vulnerable more than victories this season when it comes to the No. 48.

No championship run lasts forever, and one year it will be Johnson’s time to surrender his five-year run atop the Cup standings.

Just don’t be so sure it’ll be this season.

Tony Stewart has stolen the spotlight and grabbed the points lead with wins in the first two Chase races. Brad Keselowski has gone from wild-card to championship contender. Kevin Harvick is always a threat.

Johnson is still in the mix for six straight championships and can start to make a serious move in the standings at one his favorite tracks, Dover International Speedway. He’s tamed the Monster Mile like few other drivers in the sport ever have. He has six career victories on the concrete track and won the race here last September. Johnson has a sparkling 9.6 average finish in 19 career Cup starts at Dover.

The rush to finally anoint a new champ might stall if Johnson can capture another checkered flag on Sunday.

“I don’t think we’re looking for the walk-off home run by any means right now,” Johnson said. “It’s just finishing where we should.”

Johnson hasn’t finished where he expected to place in the first two Chase races, one reason why he’s lurking in 10th place and 29 points behind Stewart. That gap is far from insurmountable _ even with the revamped system _ for a driver like Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team.

Johnson spent Friday taking questions about “sense of urgency” and “pressure,” terms and feelings he hasn’t had experienced much of this early in the Chase since he won his first championship in 2006. Johnson acknowledged he’s feeling his share of pressure to start delivering better results over the final eight races.

“Pressure is everywhere,” he said. “These final 10 races, take that whole pressure scale and multiply it by some crazy number. Pressure is everywhere for every team.”

Obviously, Johnson feels that way. He wouldn’t be one of the more decorated active athletes if he didn’t put pressure on himself to succeed _ and then deliver a championship run like no other driver in NASCAR history.

The reality is, there’s less pressure on Johnson to win than on any of the other 11 Chase drivers.

He has his championships and his place in history. Johnson will always be a threat to contend at Hendrick, and he and doesn’t have to worry about a now-or-never attitude to win a title before his career is over. He’s not Mark Martin in the 2009 Chase.

Like if the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers lose, it’s OK. They’ll be back.

Johnson’s legacy won’t be affected one bit if he fails to win the championship this season.

That doesn’t mean he won’t work like a mad man to hang onto his crown for another year.

“We’re doing all we can, I promise you,” Johnson said. “Everybody at Hendrick Motorsports is giving us all that they have. My No. 48 team is committed and focused on doing the best job they can, and I am as well.”

Cool as always, Johnson brushed off speculation that there is any tension brewing between him and crew chief Chad Knaus. When Johnson struggled last week at New Hampshire, he chirped over the radio that Knaus’ cheerleading was “annoying,” and ordered him to stop.

Johnson said that kind of interaction has been part of their relationship since they were paired together in 2002. When the typical top-five finishes aren’t there, those terse conversations become magnified.

Johnson said it was such a non-issue, the two hadn’t bothered to talk about it this week at the shop.

“It wasn’t our finest moment on Sunday, but it’s what we deal with,” he said. “It’s been part of what we’ve been dealing with for 10 years.”

Other championship contenders hope it’s a crack in what’s been a flawless program and a sure sign new champ is on the way.

“I’d like to think we’re the guys that can end it,” Kyle Busch said.

Keselowski cautioned it was too early to discount Johnson, but “I don’t think it looks all that good.”


Johnson has a combined 26 career victories at the eight remaining Chase tracks. He leads all drivers with 19 career Chase wins _ Stewart and Carl Edwards are a distant second with eight.

Hard to top those numbers.

“This is a big weekend for them,” said Johnson’s teammate, Jeff Gordon. “This is a track that he really gets around well, that team does well here so they can get themselves right back in it in a hurry.”

Johnson’s only victory this season was at Talladega _ he had won no less than five each year of his championship run _ and he’s never run a full season without at least three wins. So something clearly isn’t clicking this year with Johnson-Knaus-Hendrick.

Something was off with Stewart’s program until he got straightened out five races ago and become the hottest driver in the sport.

So there’s time for Johnson to figure out what’s wrong.

It’s just running out.


Dan Gelston can be reached at https://www.twitter.com/apgelston

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