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Flat-out Fast
Lars Anderson
August 14, 2006
Overcoming a flat tire, Jimmie Johnson charged back to claim victory at the Brickyard and extend his points lead
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August 14, 2006

Flat-out Fast

Overcoming a flat tire, Jimmie Johnson charged back to claim victory at the Brickyard and extend his points lead

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Jimmie Johnson's 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.

"Hopefully 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 this thing."

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.

Still, Johnson's 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.

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