Johnson ready to get back on track at Pocono

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LONG POND, Pa. --- Jimmie Johnson hears the buzz. It's been kind of hard to avoid during the four-time defending NASCAR champion's recent slide.

A single top-10 in five races. Two crashes. Some bad racing luck. Driver error. No victories since early spring.

Do the performances fail to meet the impossibly high standard Johnson's Hendrick Motorsports team has set for itself during its record-breaking run? Sure.

Are they proof that the cracks in Johnson's dominance are finally starting to show? Not exactly.

"You read the headlines and it's like the No. 48 team is shutting down," Johnson said.

Hardly.

Johnson sits seventh in points heading into today's 500-mile race at Pocono, where he'll start 25th at the massive 2.5-mile oval. Halfway through NASCAR's regular season, it would take a series of major catastrophes for him to miss out on the Chase.

Still, even Johnson admits he's not exactly been at his coolly efficient best of late.

"I've always had that good rhythm of walking that tightrope, and you step over it from time to time," he said. "Lately, I've been stepping on the wrong side of that line."

He did it twice last weekend at Charlotte, where a pair of wrecks sent him retreating to the garage. He gamely headed back to the track after repairs, though the sight of Johnson running a dinged-up car 35 laps behind the leaders at a place where he's won six times bordered on the bizarre.

It was just the latest in a series of mishaps that have taken some of the steam out of Johnson's start, when he won three of the first five races and filled the rest of the series with a sense of "here we go again" dread.

Yet Johnson hasn't been back to Victory Lane since taking the checkered flag at Bristol on March 21. No biggie for most drivers. A veritable lifetime for Johnson.

He won the pole at Talladega but got caught up in a wreck with six laps to go. Two weeks later at Darlington he crashed for his third DNF of the season. Things weren't much better at Dover, where he slogged to 16th. He gambled and lost at the All-Star race. Then he spent last Sunday getting too friendly with the wall at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Is he distracted? It's kind of hard not to be when you're expecting your first child.

Johnson and wife Chandra will welcome a baby girl in July, and Johnson has done his best to help out at home when he can. Ask him about putting together the nursery and he lights up.

"Lots of pink," he said before struggling -- as most expectant fathers do -- to describe some of the stuffed animals that decorate the room.

He's got time to learn. And he's got plenty of time to figure things out on the track, too.

Johnson survived a similar lull last summer, when he managed just one top 10 in six races starting in Watkins Glen and ending in Richmond.

There was the 14-race winless streak in 2007. The forgettable two months in 2006 in which he didn't even crack the top 10.

All of those seasons ended in championships.

The drivers trying to end his reign atop the sport say it's way too early to think this year will be any different.

"There's always this stretch of four or five races every year where people kind of get concerned with the 48, how he's running," said Denny Hamlin, who sits fifth in points. "It's just that his expectations are so high, we expect him to win every other week, and the fans expect him to win every other week, and when he doesn't, everyone has questions."

And Johnson knows the only way to stop the questions is to win.


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