BROOKLYN, Mich. - Three weeks ago, Jimmie Johnson had a commanding, 232-point lead over Jeff Gordon in the Nextel Cup championship race.
That lead is gone.
Johnson finds himself in second place - 68 points behind Gordon, his teammate, mentor, friend and car co-owner - the victim of a blown engine yesterday in the GFS Marketplace 400.
It marked the third consecutive week that Johnson failed to finish a race.
"I'm just dumbfounded right now,'' he said.
Johnson started on the pole at Michigan International Speedway, but Gordon - who also started on the front row - buzzed by him in the first turn.
Johnson's day didn't get any better. His engine finally gave way on lap 83.
"I was going down the straightaway on the backstretch and it acted like I was running out of fuel, " he said. "I looked down at my fuel pressure and everything was fine.
"Then, right away I could smell some oil and knew we had dropped a cylinder [blew a piston].''
Since Johnson captured his fourth victory of the year at Pocono on Aug. 1, he has finished 36th at the Brickyard 400 because of an engine failure, 40th on the road course at Watkins Glen due to a transmission failure, and 40th yesterday in the 43-car field due to more engine problems.
"It's a shame,'' Johnson said. "Three weeks in a row we did not finish. The system works in our
favor right now and we just can't have any more of this. We've got to finish races.
"Some little things keep biting us and we have to get that off our back right now.''
Johnson had held the No. 1 spot in the points race for eight consecutive weeks until being overtaken by Gordon yesterday. Gordon, who finished seventh, has 3,254 points; Johnson 3,186.
"You never want to lose points, but it's not the important stretch,'' Johnson said.
However, with 14 top-five finishes this year, Johnson knows he must regain his momentum, with only three events left until the new 10-race "Chase for the Nextel Cup " showdown begins.
For the first time in NASCAR history, only the top 10 drivers after the 26th race of the season - Sept. 11 in Richmond, Va. - will be eligible to race for the title over the final 10 events.
"If we had three races like this in the so-called playoffs, or whatever they want to call the game we're going to play here at the end of the season, we'd be done,'' said Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief.
Johnson had hoped to rebound at MIS, where he had a pair of top-10 finishes in his previous five Cup starts. He was fourth at the Sirius 400 in June and seventh at the Pepsi 400 in August of 2002.
He also had a sixth-place finish in the Busch Series race, the NAPAonline.com 250 in 2000, and a fourth-place in 2001.
"We were hoping for a solid, top-five run,'' Knaus said.
Instead, Johnson's No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet failed to finish a race for the fifth time in 23 starts.
"It definitely gets tough,'' he said. "We have to look at our performance. We're doing good on the race track and moving forward. That's all we can really look at. I'm glad it's a freak deal, but we just can't have any more of those.''
Knaus expects Johnson - and the troublesome car - to bounce back at this week's race in Bristol, Tenn.
"We come to the race with the same focus and determination every single week,'' Knaus said. "This is a top-notch team. This is the best team in Cup racing right now and I feel like we can go up to Bristol and get a good top-five finish and then we'll start spanking them from there on out.''
Contact Ron Musselman at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6474.42.11068 -84.24795