Any doubts about Jimmie Johnson’s ability to challenge for this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship were dispelled in Sunday’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.
Johnson dominated the race, leading 99 of the 160 laps, and ran away on his own at the end to win easily from Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. This was Johnson’s second win this year in one of Rick Hendrick’s four Chevrolets and his fourth at Indianapolis putting him in rarefied company with team-mate Jeff Gordon, who’s a co-owner of Johnson’s car, and four-time Indy 500 winners A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears.
“Wow!” Johnson grinned in victory lane. “The victory lap, going around the track was something special. Thanks to all the fans up there cheering. To come here and win – four wins! I’m lost for words. We put it on them today. It was nice. To wear them out and win by a large margin is what I want to do as a racer and we did that today.”
Johnson’s previous wins at Indianapolis came in 2006, ‘08 and ’09 – all championship years for him – and he talked about equalling his two heroes Mears and Gordon. “It’s wild to equal Rick and Gordon who I looked up to as well,” he remarked. “It was really great to get my start driving a Cup car for him. To tie those guys and what they’ve accomplished – I just hoped to come here and race. I had no idea this would turn out like this. I can remember watching the 500 with my grandfather and my dad, all of us sitting on the couch and my grandfather telling me stories about him going to Indy and being at the race track. So I’m glad to have my own memories here.”
Second-placed Kyle Busch said Johnson was “in a country of his own” at Indianapolis and the five-time champion’s form at the Speedway suggested he’s the man to beat for this year’s NASCAR Sprint Cup title. It’s been said many times that Johnson drives in the spirit and style of his heroes Mears and Gordon. He’s smooth and precise, able to explore the outer limits with apparent ease, and is also a very cool customer who works extremely well with crew chief Chad Knaus.
NASCAR’s championship play-off takes place over the year’s final 10 races. Called ‘The Chase for the Cup’ it begins at round 27 at the Chicagoland Speedway in the middle of September and Johnson believes he’s ready to fight for his sixth championship.
“I wish the Chase would start right now,” he declared after winning at Indianapolis. “The team is ready and I’m ready. We learned a lot last year. I learned a lot from my mistakes last year and the team has as well. I believe I’m stronger and better today than I’ve ever been in my career and I’m looking forward to the Chase.
“Every championship I’ve won we’ve had multiple victories in the Chase. If you’re going to win the championship you need your best ten races and you better be winning every other weekend or every third weekend in order to get that big cheque at the end of the year.”
This was NASCAR’s 18th year at Indianapolis and after filling the place in the early days crowds have dropped off substantially in recent years. The biggest drop came in 2009 following a yellow flag-plagued ‘08 race caused by tyre problems. But the decline has continued in the last few years with fewer than 140,000 paying spectators last year.
In an effort to boost interest NASCAR and the IMS decided to add both a second division Nationwide race and a Grand-Am Daytona prototype race this year, but the additional races had little effect. The Nationwide race took place amid fine weather on Saturday, drawing some 30,000 people, while the Grand-Am race ran in the rain on Friday around the infield road course attracting a small crowd.
Sunday’s feature Sprint Cup race looked about the same as last year with some of the grandstands closed and fewer than half the seats filled. Most tracks would be delighted with a race day crowd of more than 100,000 but the Speedway – which seats 257,000 – has been used to pulling much bigger crowds. It will be interesting to see what the future brings for NASCAR at Indianapolis.