LOUDON, N.H. (AP) - Jimmie Johnson might not have to clear space for a sixth championship trophy.
Oh, there's still time for Johnson to make a run. A big one. No one dominates Chase races like Johnson and he has the hardware - five straight Sprint Cup championships - to prove he's the best driver in the sport.
This season, Johnson's reign could get toppled.
Johnson battled an unruly car, got irritated with crew chief Chad Knaus, made some late contact with Kyle Busch and finished 18th at New Hampshire Motor Speedway on Sunday. He was 10th in the Chase opener and sits 10th in the standings, 29 points behind race winner and leader Tony Stewart.
``We didn't have a car like we thought we would,'' Johnson said. ``We were really optimistic yesterday. After practice, the car was great. Today, it just didn't have the speed. Track position was so important and some pit calls didn't work out our way. We'll take it on the chin and go on to the next one.''
At one point, Johnson called Knaus' cheerleading over the radio ``annoying,'' and asked him to stop.
With about 20 laps left, Johnson and Busch made contact over a battle for position on the bottom lane. Johnson, who has had battles with Kurt Busch, said Kyle Busch was just being stubborn about moving because the race was winding down. They bumped and then their wheels locked.
Johnson has shook off a bad Chase start before in his championship seasons. He opened the 2006 Chase with a 39th-place finish, then reeled off five straight top-two finishes to win his first championship. He was 25th last year in the opener which sent him into the second Chase race down 26 points.
So this deficit isn't insurmountable. And Johnson typically dominates at Dover International Speedway, site of next week's Round 3 Chase race.
Stewart won't make it easy on him - or any of the 11 drivers chasing him and his perfect Chase start.
``We need eight great ones from here,'' Johnson said. ``We can't run 10th anymore. We need a bunch of 'W's.'''
JUNIOR FALLS FLAT: Dale Earnhardt Jr. believed he had a top-10 car. For the early part of the race, he backed it up by running up front and providing a glimmer of hope this could be the race he ended his miserable losing streak.
He was third last week, but was struck with flat tires at two different parts of the race and finished 17th Sunday. He's eighth in the Chase standings, 26 points behind leader Tony Stewart.
``It's frustrating, but I was happy with how the car was driving,'' Earnhardt said. ``As a driver, we haven't had that all year.''
Earnhardt knows it could be worse - he could be out of the Chase for another season instead of racing for a championship.
``I think having two flat tires, we got pretty lucky to get home in the top 20,'' he said.
TRY AGAIN: All Kurt Busch needed to start the race was a car.
Busch's crew sprinted down pit road as it pushed the No. 22 Dodge because it failed prerace inspection on the first attempt. The car had issues with the rear and wasn't rolled out to the grid until after the national anthem.
TV cameras caught owner Roger Penske and NASCAR president Mike Helton having a lengthy chat before the race started.
``We weren't right yet,'' Penske Racing competition director Travis Giesler said. ``We had to kind of do it on (NASCAR's) schedule to make it work the way they wanted. Everyone knew what needed to be done to be fixed. It wasn't a mystery of what was wrong or whether or not we were going to be able to get the car fixed.''
Busch got to keep his fifth-place starting spot but finished 22nd. The 2004 champion is in ninth place and trails Tony Stewart by 28 points.
DENNY'S DONE: Denny Hamlin ran out of gas and has about run out of time to win a championship.
Hamlin entered in 12th and stayed there after a 29th-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. He was the worst Chase finisher and continued to look nothing like the driver who entered last year's finale with the points lead.
Hamlin trails leader Tony Stewart by a whopping 66 points and is 32 points out of 11th. No other Chase driver is more than 34 points behind Stewart.
Crew chief Mike Ford gambled he could stretch the No. 11 Toyota's fuel, but it backfired and Hamlin went dry with three laps to go.
``I fully expected to have about three laps extra,'' Ford said. ``We either didn't have the fuel cell completely full the last run or obviously we didn't get as good of mileage. ... You wouldn't expect that. It was kind of a shocker. I didn't expect to even be that close.''
QUESTIONABLE QUESTION: Tony Stewart spars with the media like few athletes in sports. He can become ornery over the most innocuous question and never fails to let a reporter know when he has asked what Stewart considers a stupid question.
In a good mood after a victory, Stewart still had some fun at the media's expense. One reporter - who must have been watching the Red Sox game - asked Stewart:
``On the front straightaway where you took the lead, what was the technique behind that? When did you decide that was the point to make your move?''
Stewart, of course, won the race because Clint Bowyer ran out of gas with two laps left.
``I mean, I planned it for 280 some odd laps,'' Stewart said to laughter. ``I knew he was going to run out of fuel right at that moment versus just driving through him and running over him. Seems like it might be an easier option to turn left and run around him. That was the strategy all along. Just had to wait for that opportunity.''
Stewart had the room in laughter, when the moderator said with a smile, ``no follow up on that.''
``Wow,'' Stewart said. ``And we were doing so good in here today.''

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Service King 300 - Odds to Win @ Auto Club Speedway.
Kyle Busch +200
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