number 48 Chevrolet rumbled down pit road at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on
Sunday afternoon, headed for Victory Lane. But as Johnson, who had just won the
Allstate 400, passed the famous row of bricks at the start-finish line, he
spotted the driver who had stalked him for the last third of the race--not to
mention for the last five months in the points standings--and he slammed on the
brakes. Matt Kenseth stuck his head into the cockpit to congratulate Johnson.
Then, as Johnson rolled off, Kenseth turned his gaze down the road, toward the
10-race Chase for the Nextel Cup.
today was a preview of the championship," said Kenseth, who finished second
on Sunday. "Of course, it'd be better if I started beating Jimmie."
That won't be
easy, for Kenseth or any other driver in 2006. Johnson, who holds a 107-point
edge over Kenseth in the standings, arrived in Indianapolis last Friday morning
with an uncharacteristic sense of dread. Statistically, the Brickyard was his
worst track on the Nextel Cup circuit (career average finish: 25.2), and last
August, Johnson had crashed into the Turn 4 wall so hard that he was briefly
knocked unconscious. His bad Indy mojo hit again on Sunday, when he blew a tire
on Lap 39 and fell to 38th position. But in a textbook display of how titles
are won in NASCAR, Johnson patiently worked his way back through the field and
seized the lead with 48 laps remaining. Johnson lost track position when he
pitted during a caution and fell to eighth place on Lap 145 of 160, but he tore
through the field to grab the lead with 11 laps to go and then held off Kenseth
for his fourth win of '06.
"Early on I
was like, Here we go again," said Johnson. "But then when I got to the
front, I was honestly shocked and started thinking, Wow, I might actually win
Johnson has now
taken the checkered flag in the season's three most prestigious races: the
Daytona 500, the All-Star Challenge and the Allstate 400. Until Sunday no
driver had ever hit this trifecta in one season, and if that doesn't make
Johnson the favorite to earn his first championship, this does: Five of the
last eight Brickyard winners have gone on to take the season title.
record suggests that he could hit a speed bump between now and the start of the
Chase on Sept. 17 in Loudon, N.H. In each of the past two seasons Johnson held
the points lead in August only to lose it (along with his momentum) before the
green flag dropped on the Chase. To avoid another late-summer swoon, Johnson
and crew chief Chad Knaus have talked for months about being more
"mature" in their race-day decisions--i.e., Knaus being more
conservative with the car's setup; Johnson taking fewer chances on the
track--and so far it's working beautifully.
"It's way too
early to say that we've broken the pattern," says Johnson. "But this is
a great start."
? More NASCAR
analysis by Lars Anderson at SI.com/racing.