INDIANAPOLIS – Jimmie Johnson has a love/hate relationship with Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
On Sunday, they kissed and made up.
Johnson forged an insurmountable lead with a dominating restart with 20 laps to go, almost turning the final laps around the historic 2.5-mile speedway into his personal victory parade. Johnson — who led 99 of the 160 laps and beat runner-up Kyle Busch by 4.758 seconds — kissed the hallowed Yard of Bricks for the fourth time. Those four victories (2006, 2008-09) tied him with Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon and matched racing idol Rick Mears, who claimed four Indianapolis 500s. Only Formula One racer Michael Schumacher has more wins at IMS (5).
In 11 starts at IMS, Johnson has four wins. He also has six finishes of 18th or worse.
“To tie both of those guys, man, you just hope to race here,” Johnson said. “To come here and win is a huge honor. And to win four … I’m at a loss for words.”
Busch, who said he didn’t know a car could run that fast at IMS, was joined in the top five by Greg Biffle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon.
“You talk about guys being in their own zip code, he was in his own country today,” Busch said.
Biffle agreed. Soon after winning the race off pit road for the lead, Johnson roared past him on the front stretch with 29 laps to go. It was the final of 17 lead changes between nine different drivers.
“It really didn’t matter if you were in front of him or not, he was going to pass you anyway,” Biffle said. “He ran me down in two laps from 25 car lengths.”
Johnson, who started sixth, greeted his pit crew near the Yard of Bricks. They pounded on the hood of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet as Johnson revved his car against the interior track wall creating a puffy cloud of white smoke to the delight of a smaller but enthusiastic Brickyard crowd. The official attendance was listed at 125,000. That’s down from 138,000 in 2011.
Johnson delighted in kissing the bricks for a fourth time. It might take a few more wins before his 3-year-old daughter, Genevieve Marie, appreciates the tradition. As Johnson, his wife Chandra and the Lowe’s crew got on their hands and knees, they couldn’t convince Genevieve Marie to kiss the ground.
Earnhardt’s finish, coupled with Matt Kenseth’s 35th-place finish after getting collected in an accident, pushed the NASCAR fan favorite to first place in the points standings. It’s the first time Earnhardt has led the Sprint Cup points since Sept. 14, 2004. Kenseth dropped to second, 14 points behind.
“We need to win more races,” said Earnhardt, who has one victory this season. “If we want to win the championship we have to. … I know our fans would like us to win some more races.”
Tony Stewart salvaged a 10th-place finish on an otherwise frustrating day. He started 28th and dropped as low as 32nd after the front tire changer slipped and fell running around the car, costing the team precious seconds. Stewart, who fell one spot in the points standings to eighth, was critical of drivers blocking him as he tried to make his way through the pack.
“There are guys who just forget about what we are supposed to be doing here. They are more worried about blocking the guys behind them than trying to pass the guys in front of them,” Stewart said. “We’ll just keep adapting to how they want to race.”
Stewart has no such issues Saturday night. He flew to Eldora Speedway to compete with the National Racing Alliance Sprint Invaders and won the feature, his third NRA win at Eldora.