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Jimmie Johnson hoping to end uncharacteristic slump before start of Chase

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BROOKLYN, Mich. - The finishes seem implausible, especially because they've come in succession — 42nd place at Daytona, 42nd at New Hampshire, a brief improvement to 14th at the Brickyard, followed by a dip to 39th at Pocono and 28th at Watkins Glen.

This is Jimmie Johnson, NASCAR's six-time Sprint Cup champion?

"It has been a very challenging year," Johnson said. "We started off without the speed that we wanted. We got the speed back and then the luck left. So, we choose to look at it as we're getting all this out of the way so we can have 10 great races."

With three victories on the season, Johnson is safely in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, but lately the No. 48 car has had its share of problems. The latest setback came Friday when Johnson finished 30th in qualifying at Michigan International Speedway, complaining afterward about a vibrating car.

Johnson won at MIS earlier this season — his third victory in four races at the time — but based on his recent form, a repeat isn't looking especially likely in Sunday's Cup race.

Johnson finished in the top 10 two more times after winning at Michigan in June. Then his run of misfortune began. He was one of several top contenders taken out by a couple huge accidents at Daytona, then tire issues did him in at New Hampshire. He fell a lap down at Pocono after his rear right tire smacked the wall. He rebounded to run fifth, then a second blown tire forced him to the garage.

More of the same last weekend at Watkins Glen: With only a few laps to go, Johnson was bumped and his No. 48 spun around.

"We're not trying to make excuses or asking for sympathy from anybody," Johnson said. "But we can't ignore the results and fortunately we're in the Chase era, and we're sitting in a great position."

There are four more races until the Chase, so Johnson has a little while to reverse this trend. Although it's been a humbling stretch for him, he should still be considered a threat for the title at the end of the season.

"It's nice to have momentum entering the Chase. If it doesn't happen, we've won championships that way, too," Johnson said. "So, we're taking it as it comes."

Here are five things to watch in Sunday's race at MIS:

STEWART'S REPLACEMENT: Tony Stewart is skipping a second straight Sprint Cup race after his car struck and killed a driver at a dirt-track race in New York last weekend. Jeff Burton is driving the No. 14 Chevrolet in Stewart's place and qualified 27th.

Burton has been making the transition to the broadcast booth. This will be his third Cup start of the year.

CHASE IMPLICATIONS: Michigan's August race is usually when pressure has begun to mount for drivers who haven't secured a spot in the Chase. If the season ended now, the 16 Chase spots would go to the 12 drivers who have won races, along with the top remaining drivers in the points standings — currently Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Kyle Larson and Clint Bowyer. Any first-time winner in the next few weeks has a chance to shake things up.

NEW RULE: Expect drivers to be particularly cautious after any crashes this weekend in the aftermath of Kevin Ward Jr.'s death last weekend. Ward's car went spinning, and he got out during a caution period, walked down the track and was hit by Stewart.

NASCAR on Friday barred its drivers from approaching the track or moving cars after accidents.

"Regardless of rule changes or anything like that, I think that everything that went on last weekend I believe is a turning point internally for all the drivers," Carl Edwards said. "I think people will be more careful."

ANOTHER BREAKTHROUGH?: Johnson won at Michigan for the first time in 25 Cup races back in June. The top remaining driver who hasn't won at MIS? That may be Brad Keselowski, who is from Michigan but whose high finish there was a second-place showing in 2012.

POLE WINNER: Jeff Gordon has two wins at MIS, but the most recent came in 2001. He'll expect to contend this weekend, though, after winning the pole Friday at a track-record 206.558 mph.

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