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Jimmie Johnson remains optimistic about Sprint Cup title chances

Could Delaware be Jimmie Johnson’s Waterloo?

Johnson is trying to win a record sixth consecutive championship in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series, but he is in trouble as racing resumes Sunday at Dover International Speedway.

After two races in NASCAR’s 10-race Chase for the Cup playoff, Johnson is 10th among the 12 Chase drivers, a sizable 29 points behind leader Tony Stewart, a two-time champion who won both races.

It’s the lowest Johnson has ever been in the Chase standings, and he needs a strong showing at Dover to improve his position because if he doesn’t, the El Cajon native nicknamed “Five Time” could end up remaining just that at season’s end.

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“I don’t think we’re in a position where it’s win or nothing,” Johnson told reporters at Dover on Friday, but he added that “we need to get a top-three run here.”

There is reason to think Johnson could boost his Chase effort Sunday.

Johnson has more wins at Dover (six) than any other active Cup driver, and overall he trails only NASCAR legends Richard Petty and Bobby Allison, who each had seven.

Johnson, 36, also is close behind several other drivers in the Chase and could leapfrog some of them with a strong run Sunday. Jeff Gordon, a four-time champion and Johnson’s teammate with Hendrick Motorsports, is fifth in the standings but only six points ahead of Johnson.

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The drivers sixth through ninth in the standings — Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth (the 2003 series champion), Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kurt Busch (the 2004 champion) — are no more than three points ahead of Johnson.

“I don’t think that Jimmie is out of it by any means,” said Brad Keselowski, who is third in the standings. “He’s really not that far back.” But, Keselowski added, “He certainly can’t have any more bad races.”

Under a new points system NASCAR implemented this year, a driver can earn up to 48 points by winning a race and leading the most laps while the last-place finisher gains one point.

“We’ve been in this position before and have been behind,” Johnson said. “I certainly feel that I can be a part of this championship battle in a couple of weeks if we go out and do what we know we can do.”

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But Dover, dubbed “The Monster Mile,” is a treacherous one-mile speedway that can spawn multiple wrecks. One mishap could end Johnson’s race even if his No. 48 Chevrolet gets caught up in someone else’s mistake.

At Dover’s spring race in May, Johnson led a race-high 207 laps. But Kenseth won after changing two tires on his final pit stop while others took four, and Johnson finished ninth.

Johnson’s only victory this season came a month earlier, when he nipped Clint Bowyer by a foot at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway.

To win a sixth Cup title, Johnson also has to overcome the early momentum enjoyed by Stewart with his two Chase victories.

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Stewart was the last driver to win the Cup championship before Johnson began his streak in 2006, another year in which Johnson started the Chase poorly but rallied.

james.peltz@latimes.com


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