Jimmie Johnson'snumber 48 Chevrolet rumbled down pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway onSunday afternoon, headed for Victory Lane. But as Johnson, who had just won theAllstate 400, passed the famous row of bricks at the start-finish line, hespotted the driver who had stalked him for the last third of the race--not tomention for the last five months in the points standings--and he slammed on thebrakes. Matt Kenseth stuck his head into the cockpit to congratulate Johnson.Then, as Johnson rolled off, Kenseth turned his gaze down the road, toward the10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.
"Hopefullytoday was a preview of the championship," said Kenseth, who finished secondon Sunday. "Of course, it'd be better if I started beating Jimmie."
That won't beeasy, for Kenseth or any other driver in 2006. Johnson, who holds a 107-pointedge over Kenseth in the standings, arrived in Indianapolis last Friday morningwith an uncharacteristic sense of dread. Statistically, the Brickyard was hisworst track on the Nextel Cup circuit (career average finish: 25.2), and lastAugust, Johnson had crashed into the Turn 4 wall so hard that he was brieflyknocked unconscious. His bad Indy mojo hit again on Sunday, when he blew a tireon Lap 39 and fell to 38th position. But in a textbook display of how titlesare won in NASCAR, Johnson patiently worked his way back through the field andseized the lead with 48 laps remaining. Johnson lost track position when hepitted during a caution and fell to eighth place on Lap 145 of 160, but he torethrough the field to grab the lead with 11 laps to go and then held off Kensethfor his fourth win of '06.
"Early on Iwas like, Here we go again," said Johnson. "But then when I got to thefront, I was honestly shocked and started thinking, Wow, I might actually winthis thing."
Johnson has nowtaken the checkered flag in the season's three most prestigious races: theDaytona 500, the All-Star Challenge and the Allstate 400. Until Sunday nodriver had ever hit this trifecta in one season, and if that doesn't makeJohnson the favorite to earn his first championship, this does: Five of thelast eight Brickyard winners have gone on to take the season title.
Still, Johnson'srecord suggests that he could hit a speed bump between now and the start of theChase on Sept. 17 in Loudon, N.H. In each of the past two seasons Johnson heldthe points lead in August only to lose it (along with his momentum) before thegreen flag dropped on the Chase. To avoid another late-summer swoon, Johnsonand crew chief Chad Knaus have talked for months about being more"mature" in their race-day decisions--i.e., Knaus being moreconservative with the car's setup; Johnson taking fewer chances on thetrack--and so far it's working beautifully.
"It's way tooearly to say that we've broken the pattern," says Johnson. "But this isa great start."
• More NASCARanalysis by Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.
Two weeks after Tony Stewart caused a wreck at Poconothat put Carl Edwards into the wall, the two drivers again tossed words at eachother like stones, before the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. Stewart calledEdwards the Eddie Haskell of NASCAR while Edwards dubbed Stewart a"moron." The two raced side by side at Indy without incident but don'tbe surprised if Edwards administers some stock car justice this Sunday atWatkins Glen, where Stewart has won three of the last four races.... Sundaymarked the first time since 1998 that Michael Waltrip (above) was not in thefield for a Cup race. He failed to qualify for the Allstate 400 and thussnapped a streak of 940 races, dating back to January 1976, in which at leastone Waltrip (Michael or his brother, three-time NASCAR champion Darrell) was onthe starting grid.
FRED VUICH (PIT STOP, INSET)
Left in 38th place by an early pit stop (above), Johnson flashed championshipform on the way to another win.
JEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGES (WALTRIP)