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NASCAR bounces back, and now there are some title worries for Jimmie Johnson, with Phoenix and Homestead back 'in play'

  Beautiful day, beautiful evening at Texas Motor Speedway, and some strange things happening (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)    
  By Mike Mulhern


   FORT WORTH, Texas
   Just when NASCAR was taking hits from all sides for a boring Sunday at Talladega, and a boring championship chase, up pops Jimmie Johnson himself to put some thrill back in the playoffs – by getting caught up in a bad crash just moments after the start of the Texas 500.
   Some five hours later, after an hour's worth of repairs and 2-1/2 more hours of racing an ill-handling but speed-legal repair job around Texas Motor Speedway, Johnson was actually able to laugh about it. Not really laugh it off, but still able to muster a grin and a chuckle – and an 'I told you so' to the media, who had spent the past several weeks talking about Johnson's dominance in the title chase and how it was all over but the champagne and tuxedoes in Homestead and Las Vegas.
   In fact Johnson himself seemed ready to try and clinch the title – his fourth straight – right here. But fate, in the form of Sam Hornish, intervened.
   And Johnson wound up with his worst finish of the season, 38th and 129 laps down.
   Mark Martin, Johnson's teammate and closest rival in the title chase, and a man who had been all but defeated in this thing after crashing out on the final lap at Talladega, is now back in the game, 73 points down heading to Phoenix and then to Homestead for the finale.
   Ironically Jeff Gordon, the third teammate in this playoff battle, had started from the pole but not only never challenged but even ran remarkably poorly all day. He barely hung in the top-20 most of the day, was constantly in danger of being lapped by the dominant Busch brothers, and really lucked out in pulled off a 13th, in a gas-mileage finish.
   Gordon, 192 points down to Johnson at the start of the race, heads west to Arizona only 112 points down. And if these last two tracks weren't such weak ones for Gordon, relatively, he might be really in the hunt again.

   However Martin isn't quite sure just what to make of all this. He's never won the championship, and he's been determined not to let the emotional junk get in the way of his enjoying these final seasons of his legendary career. "It worked out good," Martin said simply. Alan Gustafson and everybody were on it. We were junk in practice, and they threw some new stuff at it. Wasn't very good the first half…and then magically mid-way the car became a top-five car. That what it was the last three runs."
   And Martin insists he's still nervous about everything, and he didn't let Johnson's sudden bad luck affect his race: "No. I still have my hands full for the top-six positions (in the standings) with all those guys.
    "Two guys that knocked me out of championships are breathing down my neck (Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart), so the race is still on.
    "I don't know why everybody tries to cap this thing out, and doesn't just wait and watch. There are still two races to go and still things that can happen."



  Yes, it's 'the fat lady singing' at Texas Motor Speedway, in honor of Jimmie Johnson's fourth straight championship. (Got to love promoter Eddie Gossage's tricks) Only this NASCAR soap opera isn't over yet. Can you spell J-I-N-X? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


And it was another bad news day for Juan Pablo Montoya, who ran top-10 most of the day, up to eighth at times, but who lost it in the corner and crashed on lap 176 of the 334-lapper. Also caught in Montoya's mess was Carl Edwards and Gordon too, though Gordon amazingly managed to keep his car off the wall.
   So instead of gaining a lot of ground too on Johnson, Montoya wound up 37th, 236 points down. "We'll look at the bright side...not sure what's the bright side yet, but I'll figure it out," Montoya said.
   "Juan got loose underneath me and got the left rear of my car," Edwards said. "He looked real good through the previous corner; I ran right beside him and he looked real tight. But then we went down into turn one and he got loose.
   "I didn't expect it, especially from Juan – He's got great car control. His car must have been really loose, and it just snapped on him."

  Kurt Busch and car owner Roger Penske after winning Sunday's Texas Dickies 500 (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   The day was rather strange in a number of ways, and Martin says it's not over yet. For him it's been two weeks of a rollercoaster ride.
   "It happened this way in reverse last week," Martin said. "I'm not really sure why everybody counts everything out. When it comes right down to performance, you know you can't beat Jimmie Johnson and those guys. It's not over yet.
   "We can go head-to-head with them. No doubt about it. In Phoenix we led the most laps and won the last time there. And we have no reason to think we can't run strong at Homestead.
    "There could still be swings in the points. There's two races left; you never know what's going to happen.
    "I'm really blessed to get to drive their stuff and be in this position. No matter what the outcome is, we've raced our guts out, and I'm so proud of this team."

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