Jimmie Johnson fondly recalls watching the Indianapolis 500 as a kid in California, rearranging the couch cushions so he could pretend he was sitting in a race car.
Johnson’s grandfather was an A.J. Foyt fan. Johnson liked Rick Mears. And now Johnson might be mentioned in the same breath as those two drivers and other Indy greats.
Johnson stamped another exclamation point on his racing resume Sunday, a dominant drive that ended with his fourth career Brickyard 400 victory.
“I’m able to join racing legends, my heroes and people I looked up to my entire life,” Johnson said. “To join them was a huge, huge honor.”
With the win, Johnson joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the only NASCAR drivers to win four times at the historic 2.5-mile track, which has hosted stock car racing since 1994.
The victory also puts Johnson among some top names in the track’s record books.
Only three drivers have won four Indianapolis 500s: Foyt, Mears and Al Unser Sr. Formula One ace Michael Schumacher won the U.S. Grand Prix five times on Indy’s road course configuration.
Johnson took it all in during a unique family moment of his own after the race, taking a victory lap in a pace car with his wife, his daughter and his crew guys all piled on board.
“You can actually soak in the moment, and look around and realize that you’re at the Brickyard — and won — was really special,” Johnson said.
And while his daughter, Genevieve, enjoyed playing with a microphone in Johnson’s postrace news conference, they couldn’t convince her to join in as they completed the tradition of kneeling to kiss the yard of bricks at the start/finish line.
“She wasn’t into it,” Johnson joked.
Johnson also won the Brickyard in 2006, 2008 and 2009.
“They’re that good, and they deserve it,” Gordon said.
Kyle Busch finished second, followed by Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon. Polesitter Denny Hamlin was sixth.
It was a rough day for Matt Kenseth, who came into Sunday’s race with the Sprint Cup Series points lead but was taken out of the race in a late collision with Joey Logano.
While Johnson ruled the day, Earnhardt walked away with the points lead — 14 points ahead of Kenseth.
“We’ve persevered all year, and we’ve done good work all year,” Earnhardt said. “I think it is a bit of a confidence booster, something I’m proud of because we’ve worked hard all year and we’ve got something to show for it.”
But Johnson’s big moment was seen by another disappointing crowd at what still is considered one of the Sprint Cup Series’ most prestigious races.
After drawing huge crowds for more than a decade after the first NASCAR race at Indianapolis in 1994, attendance has been sagging in recent years. The front-stretch stands were fairly full but there were sparse crowds in the turns.
The track estimated that attendance was 125,000, although media estimates were lower.
Jeff Burton’s flat tire brought out a caution with 36 laps to go, giving the leaders an opportunity to make their final pit stops.
Johnson, Brad Keselowski, Gordon and Busch all took four tires on their stops — but Biffle only took two tires, allowing him to come out of the pits first.
The race restarted with 31 laps to go, with Biffle taking the lead and Johnson fighting off Busch to hold on to second.
Biffle’s lead didn’t last long, as Johnson went around him on the front stretch with 29 laps to go.
“It didn’t really matter if you were in front of him or not, he was going to pass you in about four or five laps anyway,” Biffle said. “His car was just really, really good.”
Joey Logano then spun and collected Kenseth, leaving his car banged-up and smoldering. Kenseth was OK — but his points lead was gone after he finished 35th.
“Everybody was just running everybody in the back, and you could see it was just a matter of time before the wreck happened,” Kenseth said.
Johnson got a flawless restart when the race went back to green with 20 laps to go, then pulled away from Busch in the closing laps of the race.
Keselowski was going for a weekend sweep after winning the Nationwide Series race at Indianapolis on Saturday. And for a while, it looked like he might pull it off.
Keselowski and the No. 2 team experimented with a different pit stop strategy than the rest of the leaders, attempting to set up the possibility of stretching their fuel mileage at the end of the race.
Keselowski pitted on lap 91, while the rest of the leaders pitted under caution four laps later.
But Keselowski’s car got loose after the race restarted on lap 101, and he slid back to seventh — a significant setback, given how hard it is to pass at Indianapolis.
“I just made too many mistakes,” Keselowski said. “It’s hard to be mad with a top 10. I’m not mad, but no, I’m not happy. I want to win these races. I want to be a legit contender to win the big races and we were today. I just didn’t close it out.”
It was a tough day for Carl Edwards, whose engine began losing power only a handful of laps into the race.
In his first race with new crew chief Chad Norris, Edwards qualified second but began dropping in the field after an apparent engine malfunction. Edwards finished 29th, left Indianapolis 12th in the points and is in danger of missing NASCAR’s season-ending Chase.
“We have to take chances,” Edwards said. “We have to go race. We can do that, we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn’t bet against us. We can do it.”