LOUDON, N.H. (AP) – One race down and nine to go in the Chase and the only thing for sure about NASCAR’s championship battle is that Jimmie Johnson and Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kyle Busch are already in trouble.

Johnson and Busch crashed during Sunday’s Sylvania 300 – the opening race in NASCAR’s 10-man Chase for the Nextel Cup championship. Johnson finished 39th and Busch 38th, dropping the pair from second and fourth in the standings to ninth and 10th, respectively.

If ever there was an argument for giving the drivers in the Chase a separate scoring system, it’s the plight of Johnson, one of the pre-Chase favorites, and the 21-year-old Busch, in his first Chase.

Both are going to have to make sensational comebacks to even have a shot.

Johnson has had to come back from Chase adversity before.

In the inaugural Chase in 2004, after starting off with finishes of 11th and 10th at New Hampshire and Dover, Johnson had finishes of 37th and 32nd at Talladega and Kansas. That left him ninth in the standings, 247 points behind leader Kurt Busch.

But Johnson staged a furious rally, winning four of the final six races and coming up just eight points short of champion Busch – the closest championship in NASCAR history.

That same year, Tony Stewart crashed and finished 39th in the Chase opener at New Hampshire and never climbed out of the hole. He finished sixth in the points that year.

Stewart, who came back to win the title – his second – last year, believes that one bad race should not penalize Chase drivers as much as it does now.

“I think if you’ve got 10 guys that are racing with each other, they should have their own deal,” said Stewart, who fell 16 points short of making the Chase field this year and got little but personal satisfaction for finishing second to new Chase leader Kevin Harvick on Sunday.

Late in the race, Stewart charged past Chase contenders Danny Hamlin, Jeff Burton and, finally, Gordon to gain the runner-up spot.

“There should be a second points format, in my opinion,” Stewart said. “That’s the frustrating part. It’s just like me getting between Kevin and Jeff. Jeff was the second Chase guy and he should get second points.

“You’re racing guys all year and you work with each other and you’re friends with a lot of these guys and you know you’re out there costing them points. The 33 guys that didn’t make the Chase shouldn’t have to feel that way if they have a good day and are able to pass guys.”

Stewart says he even has a solution to the problem for NASCAR.

“If I had my way and I could change NASCAR today, I would have had the guys that didn’t make the race this week and (the guys) from 11th on back run a 200-mile race with no-holds-barred on that,” he explained. “Then the top 10 guys run a 200-mile race against each other after that.

“That way at least you don’t have the teams that did make the playoffs playing against the teams that didn’t make the playoffs. Right now, it’s kind of a weird situation. The Chase is exciting, there’s nothing wrong with it. But it puts some of us drivers in some awkward positions.”

Gordon, a four-time champion and another teammate of Johnson and Busch, agreed with Stewart that a different points structure would make sense.

“You have a 10-race shootout and yet you have a points system that is all about consistency,” said Gordon, who failed to make the Chase last year. “You have one bad day and that much takes you out of it.

“I think if they had a structure of points just for the top 10, where if you’re the last guy in the top 10 you took a hit but not such a big one, that would be good.”

Even under the current system, though, Gordon still has hope for protege Johnson and Busch, who trail Harvick by 139 and 146 points heading to Dover for next Sunday’s race.

“I think they do better when they’re angry and get behind,” 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.”

Still, he acknowledges it’s likely to be a futile effort.

“I’m not saying you can’t come back,” Gordon said. “Jimmie certainly can. We’ve seen him do it before. But, if there’s anybody out there who stays consistent for all 10 races, there’s no way he can come back.”


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