LOUDON, N.H. (AP) _ 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, Jim Kelly 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. Flawless week after week, race after race, he just can't figure out how to sustain it for a full season.
So the perpetual points leader is back in familiar territory following 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 little bit dicey. And 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. Had the wreck happened one week earlier, the fallout wouldn't have been nearly as disastrous.
But because it came during the Chase, Johnson will need a miracle to win his first title. After 22 weeks atop the points standings, he's ninth and 139 behind leader Kevin Harvick.
All Johnson wanted to do Sunday was run a clean race, then cut out of New Hampshire in time to eat a little slice of birthday cake. But he knew it wouldn't be easy, and prophetically predicted 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,'' Johnson said. ``I just know what happened out there, just something weird with the engine that put us back there and then we got caught up in a wreck.
``Hopefully this won't keep us from being the champion when it is all said and done.''
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 alone 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. Instead, he spends the bulk of the regular season leading the field and hits a summer swoon that crushes his momentum and cripples his grasp on the big prize.
So he and crew chief Chad Knaus sat down this winter to rethink their strategy. They decided to take a more laid-back approach, and not push so hard for the entire 36 weeks. After all, it's not how long you lead the points that's important _ when you are on top, presumably after the season finale, is all that matters.
It seemed to be working for them, despite a cheating scandal in Daytona that earned Knaus a four-week suspension. But Johnson racked up 17 top-10 finishes in the first 21 races, including four high-profile wins, and despite their best efforts to ``take it easy'' and save something for the final push, they were once again on top.
Alas, the competition began to catch up and Matt Kenseth passed him for the points lead two weeks ago. But the slate was wiped clean with the start of the Chase, and Johnson should have been the man to beat.
Instead, disaster struck in Round 1 and Johnson is doing his best to remain upbeat.
``There are nine more races,'' he said. ``There's a lot of time left. 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.''
No one wants to count Johnson out, but a comeback won't be easy.
The competition is so close, so tight, that he'll need to be near-perfect for nine weeks and he'll need the nine other Chase drivers to all slip at least once.
``The next nine weeks things have to go absolutely perfect for them,'' said two-time series champion Tony Stewart. ``They have to have everyone else have a day like that. It's hard to expect those nine guys all to have a bad day.''
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.''