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Jimmie Johnson survives a frightening crash...but his championship hopes may be dashed

  Jimmie Johnson went nose-first into the outside wall...and fortunately all those NASCAR-inspired safety devices worked fine (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   Thank goodness for soft walls and those HANS devices and all the NASCAR-inspired safety tweaks…because Jimmie Johnson's savage crash here Saturday night, without all that, could have been much, much worse.

   Johnson, though dazed, came out of the infield hospital in one piece. But his frightening hit, nose-first into the outside wall in the final miles of the Bank of America 500, looked for all the world like a replay of the crash that killed Dale Earnhardt at Daytona in 2001. In fact Johnson's hit might even have been harder, something that NASCAR's black-box G-force recorder will tell.
   "I am okay," Johnson said. "That one stung, for sure.
   "Just thankful to have safe race cars, soft walls…and everything did its job.
    "It was a pretty big impact."
   Johnson was dueling with Ryan Newman for seventh at the moment. They tangled, Johnson got squirrelly, and when he tried to save it, the car careened straight from the bottom of the track up into the wall at nearly full-speed.
     "We got into turn one, and Ryan was real tight on my outside, and pulled me around (aerodynamically). From there on, I was just hanging on.
    "Just took the air off the side of my car, and around I went. From there I was trying to save the slide…got pointed back to the fence, and hammered the wall."
    While Johnson nurses bruises this week, he and crew chief Chad Knaus may have to reconsider their game plan for the second five races of the 10-race chase. They came into the event just four points down; they go to Talladega this week 35 points down.
     And rival team owner Jack Roush says that's going to be tough for Johnson and Knaus to recover from, unless the seven men in the standing ahead of them all have some trouble.
   "We just have to go racing, that is all there is to it," Johnson insisted. "There are five races left, and right now all we have are those five races.
    "It's definitely not the night we wanted. This is not going to help us win a sixth championship.
    "But I promise you, we won't quit. We will go for every point we can…and hopefully we are still champions at the end of the year."
    If Johnson had conceded seventh to Newman, Johnson would have finished the night losing just six points to tour leader Carl Edwards, and that would have him just 10 points down – essentially just 10 finishing positions.



Jimmie Johnson: His title hopes history? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)



   Johnson's crash puts him in a deep hole, clearly, though with the new point system just how deep still isn't clear.
   But Roush says Johnson has his work cut out.
   And Roush warns that from here on any mistakes by anyone could cost them the title: "You can't afford to break apart…you can't afford to put a wheel long, or have a loose lug nut -- an extra pass at the wrong time, to serve a penalty, could be a championship losing event. 
    "There's just a lot that these guys have to do that has to be really done correctly. 
    "Jimmy (Fennig, Kenseth's crew chief) and Matt got it done here…and I'm sure they are going to be a factor in this championship coming down the stretch.
    "But anybody that has a wreck, or breaks an engine, or has a cut tire at the wrong time, you can't expect to get a mulligan.  You'll be very lucky if somebody will give you a chance to make up the whole race. 
    "I thought Jimmie Johnson would be a factor in it -- and (now) he's definitely doing to have to stand in line and wait for the other folks in the top five to have problems for him to get back in it. 
    "He won't race his way back in it.  He won't finish high enough above the top four or five cars to beat them on the racetrack.  He'll have to wait for them to have trouble, I think."

    For Kenseth the night was not just a victory but a victory in some late race techniques: "Restarts  have not been my specialty lately, especially when we restart second from the bottom (on the inside of the second row double-file).
    "I was kicking myself when Kyle got around me and Denny Hamlin got around me on the next restart. But I knew we had a shot to win the race if we got in front of Kyle and ran him down the last long run we had. I knew our car was a little bit superior to his.
    "And I was going to feel pretty bad if I cost these guys (his crew) a race again. 
    "Thankfully I could get rolling with Kyle right away, and had a good couple sets of corners, and got up to second, and then I was able to race him one on one, and that was a big key."
    Now Talladega, a wild card for sure.
    "I don't know what's going to happen at Talladega," Kenseth concedes. "Certainly in July (at Daytona, where Kenseth pushed teammate David Ragan to victory) we had a plan and stuck to it and finished first and second.
   "So we would be expecting a lot for it to go that smooth again…
    "I don't think anybody has an advantage or disadvantage in Phoenix (with the new asphalt). 
    "But at Martinsville we have been better at lately. I feel it's one of my worst tracks, but the last few times we actually ran pretty competitively there. 
    'So I don't feel like our cars are limited to only being fast at the 1-1/2-mile tracks. 
    "Certainly the tracks with more speed -- more banking -- seems to fit us. But I think we have been pretty competitive at most of the tracks this season at most times.
    "I probably look forward to Texas the most (he won there convincingly in April), and Homestead (where Roush teams dominate).
    "Homestead -- it's weird going to Homestead because it's the last race of the year, it's a different layout, we race there only one time a year, and you get there and almost feels like a new track every time you go there.
    "Those are the two I'm looking forward to the most. But mostly I'm looking forward to the challenge of all of them -- and staying on this run we are on."


    Matt Kenseth, making that inside pass, the winning move, on Kyle Busch (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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