Jimmie Johnson had one of his worst starts to a Sprint Cup series chase, after finishing just 25th on Sunday in the playoff series opener at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.
The reigning champion had an eventful race right from the first few laps as rivals made it tough for him to move up in the order from his 25th starting spot. Despite that, he eventually managed to break into the the top five before completing the first third of the scheduled distance, looking set for a strong start to his title bid. However, the Hendrick Motorsports driver, who celebrated his 35th birthday this week, was in for a troubled second half of the race as he was unable to keep making similar progress, instead struggling to remain in the top 10 and narrowly avoiding a couple of incidents on restarts.
On lap 221, Johnson spun when he made contact with Kyle Busch after trying not to hit Kurt Busch and Jeff Burton, who came together ahead of him. He dropped down to 24th in the order after stopping for repairs, tires and fuel, despite escaping major damage to his car. But as he seemed to start recovering from his spin, Johnson suddenly returned to the pits a few laps later due to a suspected loose wheel, the unscheduled stop putting him a lap down on the leaders and completely out of contention for a solid finish.
"We were kind of in the eye of the storm on those restarts," Johnson said. "Our car's strong suit was not on the first three or four laps and it made me a little vulnerable. Definitely not the way we wanted things to start, for sure.
"There are still nine races left, we did everything we could and we'll show up next week and do all we can then and hopefully we'll rebound and gain some points on those guys."
Following Sunday's race, the reigning champion is down from second to seventh in the standings, 92 points behind leader Denny Hamlin. Only in 2006 did he kick off the Chase with a worse result, finishing 39th and emerging ninth from Loudon in the playoff standing, 139 points behind the leader. However, he went on to recover over the following nine races to claim his first Sprint Cup title in the season finale.