CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Jimmie Johnson can be a bit of a klutz outside his race car, but the three-time defending NASCAR champion is typically flawless when he’s in it.

So it was a bit bizarre to see a series of errors derail his run in Las Vegas on Sunday. Although he led a race-high 92 laps, he nearly crashed into Bobby Labonte on pit road and also overshot his stall, forcing his team to push him back into the box for his service call. Coupled with an ill-timed caution, Johnson fell down a lap and had to drive his wheels off to get back into contention.

Once there, he drifted too high onto the track into an area of dirty asphalt and crashed hard into the wall to bring out the final caution of Sunday’s race. He finished 24th.

“My deal was certainly over-aggression,” he said. “I was frustrated with the day. I was just driving over my head. I thought I could win the race still and went in there too deep and lost control of the car and spun out. Certainly from my standpoint it was over-aggression.”

But that’s so uncharacteristic of Johnson, particularly at Las Vegas, where he won three consecutive races from 2005-07.

“You’re just trying to go, just trying to win the race, and other times I’ve been able to dirt track the car around and just have a cool slide that makes the highlight reel, and this one I lost it,” he said. “We certainly walked a tightrope out there in trying to hustle the car and get all that you can out of it, and I just asked for a little too much this time.”

That could be because unlike last year’s slow start to the season, when Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports team struggled with their race cars, his performance issues are unrelated to the No. 48 Chevrolet. His cars have been very good through three races, but he’s still got nothing to show for it.

He was caught in the Dale Earnhardt Jr.-Brian Vickers wreck at Daytona and finished 31st, but rebounded to cement himself as the favorite the next week at California. Johnson dominated every practice session and led twice for 74 laps, but faded at the end and finished ninth.

Then came the Vegas disaster, and Johnson heads into Atlanta this weekend ranked 19th in the Sprint Cup Series standings.

“Last year we got off to a slow start,” he said. “It was more of a panic situation than what we have right now because we didn’t have the speed in the cars. This year, it’s different.”

And he’s right. Although he was 14th in the standings through three races last year, he had a horrendous day in Las Vegas, finishing 29th and two laps off the pace. It was a humiliating performance that sent Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus back to the drawing board with their race cars.

Through an intense testing program, they rebounded and rolled to their record-tying third series title.

This year, the cars are good, but the performance doesn’t back it up.

“We’ve got fast cars but just haven’t linked together a solid 400 or 500 miles and taken advantage of the great car that we’ve had,” he said. “I feel like we’re in a great position, and there’s just so much racing (to go). It’s only three races in. Guys are going to have bad luck, and, hopefully, ours is kind of behind us and we can climb up the points ladder here.

“I’m not worried. I’m not stressed. I’m actually really optimistic and excited about the next few races.”

As well he should. Next up for Johnson is Atlanta, where he’s been very tough to beat over the years.

A three-time Atlanta winner, Johnson has finished inside the top-10 in 10 of his 15 career starts there. And it was there in the fall that he delivered the final blow to Carl Edwards’ pursuit of him in the Chase for the championship.

Edwards won the race, but Johnson rallied from 30th-place, then passed 10 cars over the final eight laps to finish second. Edwards, feeling certain he had taken a huge chunk out of Johnson’s point lead, was deflated during his Victory Lane celebration to learn of Johnson’s comeback.

Johnson knows Edwards, another three-time Atlanta winner, will be tough to beat. And Edwards is coming off his own disappointing day in the desert – he was running fourth with two laps to go when a blown motor sent him spiraling to a 17th-place finish.

“Atlanta will be a true test,” Johnson said. “I look at Atlanta and (Edwards) and how strong they’ve been there at that track. I’d probably put him as the top seed going into the race. So I’d kind of look at Carl and it would be fun to put the pressure on him this weekend and be the favorite for that.”


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