Points shakeup at Michigan

For the third straight week, Jimmie Johnson failed to finish a race and this time it cost him the points lead. Johnson parked his ...

For the third straight week, Jimmie Johnson failed to finish a race and this time it cost him the points lead.

Johnson parked his #48 Chevrolet on lap 83 of the GFS Marketplace at Michigan International Speedway on Sunday. He finished 40th -- his third straight finish of 36th or worse. His teammate Jeff Gordon, who has been the hottest driver on the circuit for the past 10 weeks, finished seventh on Sunday and took the points lead. Ironically, Johnson took the points lead from Dale Earnhardt Jr. at the same track two months ago.

"You never want to lose points but it's not the important stretch," said Johnson, the only driver in the top 10 with five DNFs. "We'll get it back. This team is way too good."

Johnson has been an outspoken critic of the new "Chase for the Championship" points system, but the format has changed the focus from the top of the standings to the drivers who are trying to make the cut.

"If we'd had three like this in the so-called playoffs, or whatever they want to call the game we're going to play here at the end of the season, we'd be done," said Chad Knaus, crew chief for the #48 team in Michigan.

For his part, Gordon is downplaying the importance of leading the points chase with three races before the cut-off.

"It doesn't matter if you're in the points lead right now," said Gordon, who won Winston Cup championships in 1995, 1997, 1998 and 2001. "Right now the story is about those guys that are getting in the top 10."

Kasey Kahne finished fifth in Michigan on Sunday and wrestled the 10th and final spot away from teammate Jeremy Mayfield. There is far less room for error at the bottom of the grid, where one bad finish in the next three races is sure to knock a team out of contention -- something former champion Rusty Wallace is faced with, after an engine failure dropped him to a 36th-place finish in Michigan.

"I think it's pretty well done," admitted Wallace, who was running in the top 5 midway through the race.

Several pre-season predictions expected Ryan Newman to be a favorite to win the first Nextel Cup. But the third year driver has struggled and has just two top-10 finishes in the past 12 races. He finished 14th in Michigan and dropped to 13th in the standings.

"It was pretty bizarre (trash on grille)," reflected Newman on the team's ill luck at Michigan. "But it's something that has happened before. You just gotta take the good with the bad. We're that (44 points out of 10th place) and we're 506 out of the lead, so we've got a shot in two different directions. If we finish in the top five in these next three races there won't even be a question."

Mark Martin is cautiously optimistic that he can make the final cut. He used a second place run in Michigan to jump to 12th in standings, just 33 points behind Kahne.

"You know I hate overly optimistic people," Martin told reporters in the post-race media conference. "Don't make me hate myself. If we starting blabbing about all that stuff, I'm only left with a broken heart. And right now I'm planning on not being broken-hearted."

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Series NASCAR Cup
Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Jeff Gordon , Jeremy Mayfield , Rusty Wallace , Ryan Newman , Jimmie Johnson , Kasey Kahne , Chad Knaus , Mark Martin