CONCORD, N.C. — Four-time defending NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson has been at his best at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He has six victories, 13 top-five finishes and has led laps in 17 consecutive Sprint Cup races at the storied track.
That's what makes his performance Sunday night so surprising.
Johnson wrecked twice in the Coca-Cola 600, the sport's longest race, and ended up well off the pace in the Memorial Day weekend event. Johnson finished 37th, 36 laps behind winner Kurt Busch. It dropped him from fourth in the points standings.
His troubles started about midway through the 400-lap affair. Johnson got "wicked, wicked loose" while running fourth on lap 167 and hit the wall coming out of a turn. He nearly scraped fenders with Denny Hamlin after brushing the wall, a move that forced Hamlin into the grass and pretty much ended the Joe Gibbs Racing driver's night after running in the top five.
Johnson damaged the rear end of his No. 48 Chevrolet, but he managed to stay on the lead lap. He restarted in 25th place and was gaining some ground before the second spin. He lost control coming out of turn two, slid across the track and slammed into an inside retaining wall.
"The first one was just a racing deal," Johnson said. "I got in the fence and did some damage. We were trying to recover from that and I was trying to run from the leader, trying to be respectful of the leader, and I had the leader coming on my tail.
"We made some big adjustments to the car and basically adjusted it to free it up there and I just spun out."
Crewmembers worked furiously to put a new front bumper on the car and piece it back together. Johnson, meanwhile, was taken to the infield care center, examined and released.
He got back on track for a restart with 94 laps remaining. He was in 37th place, 33 laps behind the leaders. Still, he avoided his fourth DNF of the season.
Rear axle problems doomed him in the season opener at Daytona, and crashes ended his races at Talladega and Darlington. In between, Johnson won three of the first five races and then took over the points lead after finishing ninth at Martinsville in late March.
He was running at the end of all but seven races during his championship run between 2006 and 2009. His recent struggles in 2010 dropped him to fourth in the standings before this weekend.
Maybe he should have seen this coming. After all, he led 56 laps in last week's All-Star race only to get knocked out by an accident.
Now, after two more wrecks, he's in the kind of hole he hasn't experienced in some time.