CONCORD, N.C. — Without a miracle, what looked to be a likely championship season for Jimmie Johnson is over.
All that's left for him is winning races.
That's just fine with Johnson.
Johnson became the first driver to sweep the season races at Lowe's Motor Speedway since the late Dale Earnhardt did it in 1986, winning the UAW-GM Quality 500 on Saturday night.
But the victory did little to help his title hopes. After dominating the season for almost seven months, bad luck has left Johnson stuck in eighth place in the standings — a mountainous 227 points behind leader Kurt Busch.
"You know what? We've just been enjoying each week and not letting ourselves get too serious and not put too much pressure on ourselves," Johnson said. "But it's been tough, no doubt."
Had this been any other season, Johnson would have likely wrapped up the title by now.
But this is the first year of NASCAR's new 10-man, 10-race playoff system, and Johnson hasn't had much success since it started. Consecutive finishes of 32nd or worse the past two weeks ended his title hopes.
Now he knows nothing short of a collapse from Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Jeff Gordon will help him get back in the hunt.
"I think we still have hopes, but I think it is out of our control," Johnson said. "It is going to require Jeff, (Earnhardt and Busch) to have some bad luck to put us back in a window where we can control it."
For a brief moment Saturday night, it looked as if Johnson might get it.
Scott Riggs missed a shift at the start of the race that prevented him from taking off. He tried to get his car out of the way, but there was too much traffic behind him and a chain-reaction crash stacked up behind him.
It caused minor damage to Busch and Gordon, who had to pit several times to make repairs.
When racing resumed, Busch was 38th and Gordon 40th.
Still, Gordon rebounded to finish second and Busch was fourth. Earnhardt was third.
Busch holds a 24-point lead over Earnhardt and Gordon is 74 points back.
Busch survived a series of close-calls to get his finish, including dodging several wrecks and driving through oil on the track that nearly caused him to spin.
"It was the adventures of Kurt Busch and team today," Busch said.
Gordon had his own rotten day, spinning out midway through the race and fighting to fix an ill-handling car. Somehow or another, the four-time series champion managed to pull it together and salvage the night.
"There were so many moments today where we could have crumbled, and we stayed calm and came back and what an amazing finish," Gordon said. "Now we are still in the thick of things."
Almost all of the championship contenders had some sort of struggle, but nine of them ended up 14th or better.
Elliott Sadler finished seventh to remain fourth in the standings.
Mark Martin is fifth in the standings, but had a heartbreaking race. He was leading late and was on his way to a second-place finish when Jimmy Spencer and Brendan Gaughan got into an accident in front of him and Martin couldn't avoid it. After stopping to fix the damage, he was only able to manage a 13th-place finish.
Martin, 186 points behind Busch in the standings, was despondent after the race.
"It's hard for me to believe some of these guys could pass a driver's test," he said of the accident that ruined his night.
When asked if his bid to win his first championship was over, Martin paused before answering.
"We gave it a great run," he said. "I can't help it."
Tony Stewart finished 10th after fighting all night with a car that was so bad, he once threatened to intentionally wreck it. He's still sixth in the standings.
Kenseth, the reigning series champion, finished 11th despite hitting the wall once and later spinning out in oil that had been leaked onto the track.
Jeremy Mayfield, who has had a rocky time in the first part of the 10-race playoffs, was the only contender to have a truly awful night. He, too, drove through the oil that spun Kenseth, but suffered heavy damage and finished 30th.
Mayfield is 349 points out of the lead.