Originally Published: August 26, 2013

Kenseth Clinches Chase Berth

Sprint Cup: Another setback for Johnson

By Brant James | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Tenn. -- They cheered uproariously when Jimmie Johnson spun out preceding his qualifying lap on Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. And they jeered derisively when he strode to the stage during driver introductions on Saturday before the Irwin Tools Night Race.

Johnson gazed up into the stands, beamed, and muttered close enough for the microphone to detect, "I know you love me."

The five-time series champion knew better, at least about the ones making obscene gestures and cat-calling through cupped hands. He understands that in the strange schadenfreude-driven realm of fandom and anti-fandom, there will be those who simply revel in the misfortune of the successful. And unfortunately for Johnson, his performance has given his detractors much to love the past two weeks.

Jimmie Johnson
Jared C. Tilton/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson (48) got collected in a Lap 360 accident that ruined his Saturday night at Bristol.

That point was underscored on Saturday by the reaction when his No. 48 Chevrolet was involved in a late wreck and finished 36th, reducing the Sprint Cup points leader's once-imposing 75-point margin over Clint Bowyer to a minuscule 18 points entering the penultimate race of the regular season. Troubling still, Matt Kenseth subsequently winning his series-best fifth Sprint Cup race of the season, moving the 2003 series champion provisionally ahead of Johnson in the jockeying for postseason position.

Johnson was running 17th and coping with a balky race car on Saturday when on Lap 360 he was collected by David Reutimann and forced to the garage for repairs. He returned to finish 36th. It wasn't the bounce-back Johnson needed after crashing in practice and requiring a backup car in Michigan, then having a blown engine resign him to a 40th-place finish.

"We will definitely come back next week and do all we can," Johnson said. "We had a decent finish. Last week, I really thought we had a shot to win and had an engine failure. This racing stuff happens."

All of this in three weeks. For a driver whose dominance has projected outward over stretches of weeks, months and a decade, such a period of malaise seems like a very long time.

And certainly, Johnson's rush of momentum is gone, with it any of the notions he could skip the regular-season finale at Richmond and attend the birth of his second child.

It's a slump, certainly, but Johnson's unparalleled success has made it seem such. It's a setback, but he is already locked into the postseason. Whether it's a trend, after fizzling in the 2011 Chase and succumbing to eventual champion Brad Keselowski in the finale at Homestead last year, remains to be seen.

In any case, it's Johnson's reality heading this week to Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he has won three times (but not since 2007) and finished 34th after crashing last fall.

"Luckily, we had a big points lead that we can kind of deal with right now," he said. "We've locked into the Chase. We certainly want to clean things up and have some great finishes rolling into the Chase.

"We'll keep after it, and be back again next week. There is still a lot of racing left. And then once the Chase starts, it is its own animal. So we'll just wait and see what happens during those 10 [races]."

And see who's cheering at the end.

Brant James

Contributor, espnW.com
Brant James has covered the Daytona 500, Indianapolis 500, a World Series and Stanley Cup for the big hometown daily, an NCAA tournament and a Super Bowl. He's walked to the paddock with Kentucky Derby horses before post, ridden to the top of Mount Washington with Travis Pastrana and landed on an aircraft carrier with Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nationwide: Kyle Busch Wins At Bristol

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