By Jeff Wolfe
Jimmie Johnson sure hopes history repeats itself.
If that happens, the driver of the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet might have a new nickname when the season is over.
Johnson, often called five-timer for his five NASCAR Sprint Cup titles, won his fourth Brickyard 400 Sunday. Of the previous 18 winners of the race, eight have gone on to win the title. At least on Sunday, Johnson looked like a good bet to make it nine, in which case he might have to be called six-timer.
He could be called nothing but fast in this win at Indy.
After taking the lead from Denny Hamlin early in the race, Johnson was in control much of the rest of the way in the 160-lap, 400-mile event at the famed 2.5-mile oval. Johnson led 99 laps and became the first driver who has led the most laps in the race to also win at Indy since 2007, when three-time Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart won.
“I slept well last night knowing I had such a good car and feeling that today was going to be my day,” said Johnson, who picked up his 58th career victory and third this season. “Winning is great but the way you win is just as important.”
Johnson’s main challengers each had some type of issue to deal without throughout the race.
Early on, Hamlin was in control and led the first 26 laps, but lost the lead to Johnson after pit stops cycled through under green. Johnson beat Hamlin out of the pits on lap 28 to get the advantage on Hamlin.
But that didn’t turn out to be Hamlin’s biggest issue.
After the first of five cautions for 25 laps on lap 42 for a Travis Kvapil spin, Brad Keselowski , who was on a different pit strategy, and Johnson and Hamlin were at the front of the pack for the restart. But Hamlin’s car lost its grip and slipped up out of the narrow racing groove at Indianapolis and he dropped back to 14th before getting on pace with the rest of the field.
Keselowski also had his moments in the bright sun at Indy, leading for 22 laps. And even though he was on a slightly different pit strategy, once the stops cycled through about midway through the race, he had a lead on Johnson from laps 76-89. After Keselowski pitted on lap 90, the third caution of the day came out on lap 95, meaning he could stay out while the rest of the leaders came into the pits. However, Regan Smith, also looking for track position, took just two tires on the stop and started second next to Keselowski.
On the restart on lap 101, Keselowski was trying to pass Smith on the outside, but got loose and also went up out of the groove. He fell to sixth and Johnson took advantage by taking the lead.
That left eventual second-place finisher Kyle Busch as the only other potential challenger for Johnson on the day. Busch, too, had his moments as he led briefly for three laps. However, he had issues on pit road when after leaving his pit box on a yellow flag, the car belched black smoke for a moment, costing him several s positions before picking up speed again. But in the final 20 laps, all run under green, he couldn’t make any gains on Johnson, who won by a little over four seconds.
“If it wasn’t for the No. 48, we were probably in our zip code on the rest of the field, but Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today, so we just couldn’t keep up with him,” Busch said. “We had a really good car today. My team brought a phenomenal piece here, and we worked on it well this weekend.”
Johnson joined a phenomenal group of four-time winners at Indy, including Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon, IndyCar legends A.J. Foyt and Rick Mears and Formula One legend Michael Schumacher.
“To come here and win is a huge honor,” Johnson said. “And to win four – four wins … I’m at a loss for words. It was a total team effort, and we put it to them today. It was nice.
“I can remember watching the (Indy) 500 on the couch with my grandfather, and I remember him telling me he came to Indy. Man, you just hope to race here, and it is nice to create my own family memories here.”
Johnson said the key memory for him in this race came on the next-to-last restart, when he spun his tires just a bit, allowing third-place finisher Greg Biffle to take a brief lead and then getting side-by-side with Busch for a moment, before regaining his grip and pulling away.
“That was my moment of panic when I thought I had lost the race, but then I was able to get back into the lead,” Johnson said. “On the last restart, I got away quickly and was able to manage it.”
Also managing to finish in the top 10 were Dale Earnhardt Jr. in fourth, then Gordon, Hamlin, Newman, Truex Jr., Keselowski and Stewart in front of an estimated crowd of 125,000, marking the fifth straight decrease in attendance at for the Sprint Cup race at Indianapolis.
Stewart, who considers Indianapolis his home track, made it clear he wasn’t happy with some drivers during the race.
“There are guys who just forget about what we are supposed to be doing here,” Stewart said. “They are more worried about blocking the guys behind them than trying to pass the guys in front of them. You just race them how they race. We’ll just keep adapting to how they want to race.”
The Sprint Cup Series will race again next Sunday at another 2.5-mile track at Pocono on a 1 p.m. start on ESPN.