Posted: Sun July 29, 2012 7:41PM; Updated: Sun July 29, 2012 9:02PM
Cary Estes
Cary Estes>INSIDE NASCAR

Johnson looking like Chase favorite with fourth Brickyard 400 victory

Story Highlights

Jimmie Johnson is now one of six drivers with at least four career wins at Indy

A change to crew chief Chad Norris didn't help Carl Edwards, who finished in 29th

In 15th with six regular-season races left, Jeff Gordon is likely out of the Chase

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Jimmie Johnson joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the only NASCAR drivers to win four times at Indy.
Jimmie Johnson joined Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the only NASCAR drivers to win four times at Indy.
Tom Strattman/AP

INDIANAPOLIS -- Mr. Five-Time is now Mr. Four-Time. But for Jimmie Johnson, that is not a step backward. Instead, it is another impressive line in the record-setting racing resume that Johnson continues to write.

The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion picked up his fourth career victory in the Brickyard 400, turning in a dominating performance Sunday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He is one of only six drivers with at least four victories at the historic track. Jeff Gordon also has won the Brickyard four times, while A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears are each four-time winners of the Indianapolis 500. Michael Schumacher won the Formula One U.S. Grand Prix five times.

"I just hoped to come here and race [one day]," Johnson said. "To come here and win is a huge honor. And then to have four wins -- four wins -- I'm at a loss for words."

We, on the other hand, still have plenty to say. Here are five things we learned at Indianapolis:

1. Johnson appears to be the favorite heading into the Chase. After a sluggish start to the season, Johnson is rounding into championship form. It took him nearly three months to win his first race. Now he has three victories and eight top-10 finishes in the past 10 races. And while Johnson might be fourth in the point standings, nobody else currently has a better combination of ability, confidence and team chemistry.

LONG: Earnhardt's turnaround continues by taking points lead

"From a performance standpoint, we're as strong as we've ever been," Johnson said. "These are amazing race cars. We've made a lot of progress since the start of this year. I feel really good about the Chase. I'm ready for it to start."

Crew chief Chad Knaus sounded equally optimistic about the team's chances of capturing championship No. 6.

"He's awesome. There's no doubt about it," Knaus said of Johnson. "He's the best race car driver that we have in the sport right now. But if we have poor pit stops or poor race cars, he can't get it done. Fortunately enough, everybody we have at Hendrick Motorsports and on the 48 team are doing their jobs, and we're able to go out and post good numbers."

That was never more evident than on Sunday, as Johnson led 99 of the 160 laps and quickly regained the lead whenever he dropped out of the top spot.

"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," third-place finisher Greg Biffle said. "He ran me down in two laps from 25 car lengths [behind]. His car was just really, really good."

2. Changing crew chiefs has not fixed Carl Edwards' woes. Edwards stood outside his hauler on Saturday and answered a series of questions from members of the media about the team's recent change in crew chiefs from Bob Osborne, who has worked with Edwards nearly his entire Sprint Cup career, to Chad Norris. The official word is that Osborne stepped down because of health issues, not because Edwards is winless this season and in danger of not making the Chase. But considering how poorly Edwards has performed lately (only one top-10 finish in the past seven races and no top-5s since March), it is easy to wonder whether his on-track struggles truly were the reason for the change.

After watching Edwards talk to the media for nearly 20 minutes, Clint Bowyer -- who was sitting two haulers away from Edwards -- expressed what many people probably were thinking. "Hey Carl," Bowyer suddenly yelled. "How many different ways can you explain why you fired somebody."

Edwards looked at Bowyer and tried to maintain a smile, but it was obvious that the comment stung him deeply. Following several seconds of nervous laughter from those gathered around him, Edwards finally replied, "I don't know what to say to you right now."

Edwards didn't know what to say Sunday, either He entered the race with optimism after qualifying second, but was forced to the pits after only 13 laps, telling his team simply that the car "isn't running right." His crew ended up changing all the sparkplugs and that appeared to solve the problem. But by the time Edwards returned to the track he was two laps down on his way to a 29th-place finish. He is now 12th in the standings, 69 points out of 10th and with no victories needed to capture one of the two wild-card positions.

Moments after the early pit stop Edwards told Norris over the radio, "I'm not trying to get down on you. I'm just very, very frustrated like we all are. Let's go forward. That's done."

Edwards' chances at making the Chase also appear to be done.

3. The Brickyard 400 is not what it used to be. For the drivers, this remains one of the crown jewels of the sport, ranking just behind the Daytona 500 and possibly ahead of the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte and the Southern 500 at Darlington in terms of prestige. For the fans, however, this is becoming just another NASCAR race to avoid.

Attendance has been sinking like a brick ever since the 2005 Brickyard, when the track's 257,000-seat grandstands were packed and total attendance (including the infield) was approximately 280,000. That number has dropped by more than half, with Sunday's race attracting a crowd estimated at no more than 120,000, and probably several thousand less. That would be an impressive total anywhere else, but at Indy it resulted in wide patches of empty aluminum bleachers reflecting in the sun.

It is amazing to think that 15 years ago, when NASCAR's popularity was soaring and open-wheel racing was going through the messy feud between CART and the Indy Racing League, there was serious speculation as to whether the Brickyard 400 might one day pass the Indianapolis 500 in popularity. That notion seems ridiculous now.

4. Jeff Gordon might have missed his last best chance to make the Chase. Gordon's fifth-place finish Sunday gives him two fifths and three sixths in the past six races. In the process he has motored from 22nd in the point standings all the way up to 15th. But the one thing Gordon still does not have this season is a victory, and that is probably going to prevent him from being able to sneak into the Chase.

Gordon is 79 points out of 10th place in the standings, a gap he likely cannot make up in the six races before the 12-driver Chase field is set. That means his best chance at making the Chase is to grab one of the two wild-card spots that is predicated on victories.

With 85 career Cup victories to his credit, Gordon certainly is capable of winning twice in six races, which is probably what he would need to do to make the Chase. The problem is that Indy is one of his best tracks. A victory Sunday would have thrust him back into legitimate Chase contention. Now he remains a long shot.

"I'm frustrated that we let opportunities get away earlier in the year. I feel like we let one get away a little bit today," Gordon said. "But it's not going to stop our efforts and how hard we're going to work from here on out to try to win more races or at least keep these top fives coming if we can't win."

When asked whether he can still make the Chase, Gordon replied, "Anything's possible."

5. NASCAR is Dale Earnhardt Jr's world. Everybody else is just riding around in it. All right, this isn't exactly something we have just learned. Earnhardt has long been the most popular driver in the sport, with a fan base that far exceeds any other driver in NASCAR. But that point was hammered home with a surreal scene following Saturday's Sprint Cup practice session.

As Earnhardt stood in his garage stall talking with crew chief Steve Letarte, dozens of fans lined up on either end of the stall, snapping photos and clutching posters and memorabilia that they hoped Earnhardt would sign. One woman walked to the edge of the stall and tried to get his attention by repeatedly screaming, "Junior, Junior," before security officials had her back up a few steps. When Earnhardt finally left the garage, a swarm of people surrounded him as he made his way to a golf cart that took him back to his hauler. One young man even ran alongside the golf cart for several seconds as it sped away.

Meanwhile, just two spots away from Earnhardt's stall, Tony Stewart sat in his garage with only a handful of fans paying him any attention. That's defending Sprint Cup champion and Indiana native Tony Stewart. He is arguably the second-best driver of the past 10 years and a home-state favorite, but he still was eclipsed by the fandom that is Junior Nation. And now that Earnhardt has taken over the lead in the point standings, look for the Nation to become even larger and louder.

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