LOUDON, N.H. - Poor Jimmie Johnson, the nicest guy in NASCAR, who can never catch a break - not even on his 31st birthday and especially not when the championship is on the line.
Like Dan Marino or Charles Barkley before him, Johnson is at the top of his game all year long, only to run out of steam when the stakes are the highest.
The perpetual points leader is back in familiar territory after Sunday's 39th-place finish at New Hampshire International Speedway: frantically fighting to keep his title hopes alive after yet another collapse.
An early engine problem pushed Johnson to the back of the field, where the competition isn't as clean and the racing is a bit dicey. When the traffic stacked up and Sterling Marlin had to swerve suddenly to avoid his own fender-bender, Johnson found himself in the line of fire.
Marlin bumped him, Johnson jerked the wheel and his car went careening into the wall for a hard hit that shredded the sheet metal on his Chevrolet.
Unfortunately for Johnson, his misfortune came in the first week of NASCAR's Chase for the Championship, when the points standings have been squeezed together to create a frantic, 10-week race to the Nextel Cup title.
After 22 weeks atop the standings, he's ninth and 139 points behind leader Kevin Harvick.
Johnson knew Sunday's race wouldn't be easy and prophetically said before the race that this opening round would ruin someone's title hopes.
"I hope I don't eat the words I said early on when I said you can't win the championship here in New Hampshire, but you can lose it," he said afterward.
This latest bad break hardly rivals Phil Mickelson's meltdown on the 18th hole at Winged Foot, but comparing Double J to Lefty and his famous failures isn't so farfetched. Yes, Johnson has won a "major" before, including two this year in the Daytona 500 and the Brickyard.
But he's also lost at least two championships. A two-time runner-up who has never finished lower than fifth in the standings, Johnson just can't seem to find his way all the way to the top.
"There are nine more races," he said. "Anything can happen. I lost the Chase for the championship on the last lap of the last race at Homestead (in 2004). So who knows, maybe I can win it that way this year."
If anyone can rally, it's Johnson, who has mounted comebacks before, including his string of four wins in 2004 to pull himself back into contention.
"Sometimes I think they do better when they are angry and get behind," teammate Jeff Gordon said. "I look for those guys to be on quite a tear in the next five or six races and try to get themselves back into it.
"Obviously, that isn't how you want to get your Chase started ... but we have seen Jimmie do it before."
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