It was easy to throw dirt on Jimmie Johnson when he was -23 points in the hole and facing the prospect of losing his crew chief Chad Knaus for up to six races two weeks ago after the Daytona 500.
But after a fourth-place run last week in Phoenix followed by a runner-up finish on Sunday in Las Vegas, Johnson has sent a loud and reverberating reminder he is still the same man who has won five championships and 55 Sprint Cup races.
"Definitely a lot to be proud of today," Johnson said after the race. "Look at our pit stops on pit road, the consistent speed we had there and the consistent fast race car that we had all day long.
"We did have one set of tires maybe two stops from the end we lost a bunch of spots. Something was off with them. Outside of that, I mean, the car was pretty close to the fastest car all day long. Traded back and forth with Tony (Stewart). I can't take anything away from them; they were awfully strong and had the fastest car all day long."
Despite a wreck in Saturday's final practice session that destroyed his primary car and necessitated his team going to a backup car, Johnson wasted no time working his way to the front. By lap 82 with a pass of Kevin Harvick, Johnson moved into second place behind Matt Kenseth, and on lap 99 he took the lead after a lengthy battle when he passed Kenseth going into Turn 3. Altogether, Johnson led for a total of 35 laps on the day.
With three cautions in the final 23 laps, Johnson had his opportunities to work his way around race-leader Tony Stewart on the subsequent restarts. But the defending Sprint Cup Series champion was on his game and never opened the door for Johnson or anyone else to walk through.
"The first (restart), I know that I just jumped on the gas too hard and spun 'em," Johnson said. "That was my fault. The second restart, I didn't spin 'em. I felt really good and he was still running away from me."
Despite missing out on scoring his first win of 2012, a second-place finish and the points that come with it is huge for a driver trying to dig out of a massive hole.
Now though, thanks to back-to-back top-five finishes, the deficit Johnson found himself in one race into the season is no longer as overwhelming. The five-time champion jumped 14 spots in the standings and sits 23rd in points heading into the Food City 500 next Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"With everything we went through this weekend, we will take it," Johnson said. "Man, I want to win. We were close."