Jimmie Johnson not ready to panic
DOVER, Del. -- No offense to the mysterious dead weight points leader Tony Stewart apparently got rid of last week, but the burning question inside the Sprint Cup garage at Dover is whether Jimmie Johnson's run of five straight championships is over.
Let me answer: No.
To dismiss Johnson as a Chase contender after two of 10 races because he is 10th in points would be a monumental mistake. The No. 48 team is only 29 points behind Stewart, which equates to around 115 under the old system.
In case you haven't been paying attention, in 2006 Johnson was 156 points out under the old system with six races remaining when he began this amazing run.
It also would be a monumental mistake to suggest the radio squabble between Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus last week at New Hampshire was a sign the empire is crumbling. In case you haven't been paying attention, the two have gone at it before and they usually come back stronger than ever.
If anything, that Johnson is 10th in points shows just how tight this playoff is.
"I hope he's still in it, because if you're saying he's out that means we probably are, too." said 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, who is in seventh place, 26 points out.
For the record, Kenseth doesn't think he's out of it.
Even with Denny Hamlin, who is almost a race and a half behind (66 points), in 12th, this is still one of the most wide-open Chases after two races. It's definitely tighter than a year ago, when Stewart in 10th place was 162 points out.
"We all want to predict now, but we can't," Johnson said. "We have to run 10 races. Whoever does catch fire and can stay consistent, they can have a runaway year. But I haven't seen anything that shows me it's going to be a runaway year for anyone."
And we haven't seen anything that suggests Johnson is toast, particularly when you consider his history at the Monster Mile.
In case you haven't been paying attention, Johnson has won six times there, including this race a year ago and three of the last five. He has led at least 191 laps in each of the last five races there, making him the clear-cut favorite.
Stewart, in case you haven't been paying attention, finished 29th and 21st in his last two Dover starts and hasn't led a lap there since 2004.
Johnson, by the way, has been paying attention.
"I don't think we're in a position where it's win or nothing," he said. "We need a good top-three right now."
All this talk about Johnson being out of it sounds more like wishful thinking than anything. People are so tired of seeing the Hendrick Motorsports driver take home the title that they'll latch on to any piece of hope.
As Dale Earnhardt Jr. noted, Johnson being out of Chase contention makes for a good story, even if it's contrived.
"It just makes for good gossip and good conversation that Jimmie's had kind of a rough go of it," NASCAR's most popular driver said. "But he's done that before and been able to come back."
For the record, Earnhardt hasn't given up, either, as he's tied with Kenseth at 26 points out.
"Just as quickly as we got  points behind, those in front of us could do the same thing," Earnhardt said.
Easily. The top three -- Stewart, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski -- are separated by only 11 points and don't have a particularly stellar record at Dover. Plus, if you've been paying attention to the way this season has gone, nobody has been able to hold onto the points lead for a long time.
There were 11 changes to the top spot during the first 26 races compared to four in each of the last two seasons. That's significant.
The advantage Johnson has on everybody is he's been there, done that. That people are talking about him means he's still in their heads.
OK, he's not in Harvick's head.
"I'm not racing the 48," Harvick said. "I'm racing myself."
Stewart basically said the same thing.
"I'm not even looking at any of the 11 [other] guys," said the two-time champion, whose dead-weight comment remains a mystery. "I'm worried about what we're doing with our cars. If we don't do our job, it doesn't matter where they're at or who it is."
But in reality, everyone is racing the 48. As Kenseth has said in the past of Johnson's team, "they're the favorites and they're the guys until somebody can knock them out and prove otherwise."
Johnson's little radio spat with Knaus at New Hampshire was way overblown, as Earnhardt and others will attest. Johnson knew he was in a tough spot on the track and didn't want to hear Knaus' cheerleading when he said, "You just sit back and watch me do my thing."
It didn't lead to any team meetings. It was nothing that hasn't happened before and won't again.
To keep this streak alive, to stay on top as we hope to do, you have to continue to find new ways to do it” -- Jimmie Johnson
It won't become a distraction.
"I mean, when you work with someone as long as we have, for over 10 years now, there are hot spots and buttons that can be pushed that send someone over the edge," Johnson said. "We know what took place last weekend and he knows at times I can be frustrated with his cheerleading. That is what I said on the radio.
"So, it's nothing new to us."
What is new to the No. 48 team and a reason some are counting Johnson out is the lack of winning. Johnson never has gone this deep into the season with only one win. He has finished with at least three wins since he began Cup full time in 2002 and has averaged 5.9 wins over the past nine years.
That can be alarming if you're Johnson. Or it can be scary if you believe the odds favor Johnson winning two or more times over the next eight weeks.
"I think we read too much into what position he's in and not how many races are left and how far back he is," said Keselowski, in third place and 11 points back. "He's really not that far back."
Johnson knows it. Everybody that has been paying attention knows it.
"To keep this streak alive, to stay on top as we hope to do, you have to continue to find new ways to do it," Johnson said. "I certainly feel that I can be a part of this championship battle in a couple of weeks if we go out and do what we know we can do."
What Johnson does is win championships.
That's a dead weight Stewart will have to shed if he hopes to win a third title.
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DNewtonespn.