CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) - The rattling of a loose wheel would be enough to unravel any driver, and for a brief moment in the opening race of the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, the chattering from under his car probably did cause Jimmie Johnson's heart to sink.
Forced onto pit road for a quick fix, Johnson couldn't make up time he lost and finished a distant 25th in Sunday's race at New Hampshire.
It was the lowest finish of all Chase drivers, and enough to drop him six spots in the standings to seventh.
A lot of drivers would throw in the towel on a title run.
Superman isn't one of them.
Johnson is taking an optimistic approach to the remaining nine weeks of the Chase. He knows the record book shows that since the Chase began in 2004, the champion finished sixth or better in the opening race every year but one. The lone exception? Johnson.
He rallied from a 39th-place finish in 2006 to win the first of his four consecutive championships. So anyone who wants to count him down right now had better be warned, he most definitely is not out.
``I know we all try to find statistics and trends that favor someone, but there's 10 races and there's so many variables and so many opportunities for something to go wrong and '06 proved all that to me,'' Johnson said. ``Yeah, 25th is not the way we want to start the Chase, but those other 11 drivers can also have their fair share of bad luck, too. We just can't get down and depressed. We ran well, we were competitive, we need to go to Dover and get back in our game and do our thing and see how things go from there.''
Johnson, trailing leader Denny Hamlin by 92 points, is certainly in a hole. But he's hardly on the ropes, especially since Round 2 of the Chase rolls into Dover International Speedway this weekend.
The Monster Mile has never been all that daunting to Johnson. He swept the two races his 2002 rookie season, added a third win during the 2005 Chase, then pushed his wins total to five with last season's sweep.
Had he not been caught speeding down pit road there in May, Johnson might have had a sixth win. After all, he led a race-high 225 laps before his gaffe opened the door for Kyle Busch to wrest away the victory.
``It's one of my favorite race tracks, so I'm excited to get back after last weekend's finish,'' Johnson said. ``We definitely need to get some points and get some things going. We couldn't pick a better track.''
Johnson has become an expert at tuning out distractions and focusing only on his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team. He figured out that strategy after he became consumed with Tony Stewart during the 2005 title race that Stewart won.
When he switched gears the next season and stopped worrying about the rest of the field, Johnson began his four-year reign atop NASCAR.
Now that he finds himself in a deficit, he figures this is yet another example of why it's best to tune out the competition.
``The only way to go is up at this point, and we know that we can't have anymore mistakes,'' he said. ``We have to be spot-on, we have to be leading laps, we have to be running up front. It really simplifies things for us. We've got to perform.
``There's nothing to protect, there's nothing to try to hold on to, it's all about getting back some points so it's pretty simple right now.''
Johnson figures if he does that, then one by one, the drivers ahead of him in the standings may leave the door open for him to quickly climb back into the race. He showed last season that he wouldn't waste his time playing mind games, guessing correctly that the competition would self-destruct without any help from him.
Now that he's in a hole, and other drivers can sense the opportunity in front of them, he's hopeful the pressure will weigh on his rivals.
``There's some other teams out there that are very concerned and very occupied with what everybody else is doing, and when you start writing nice things about them, they believe it and when you start writing bad things about them, they get upset and call, text or e-mail you,'' Johnson said. ``Those are the guys that during the stretch of the Chase, I think can be affected by the pressure. Will they? I don't know.
``For my sake, I hope they feel the pressure and make mistakes, but they're all hoping that they don't.''

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