Thomas Bowles · Sunday August 6, 2006
To the Point: No one feels the "Dog Days of August" more than Jimmie Johnson. The past two years, racing at Indianapolis signaled the start of Johnson's summer slump in which failures both in the car and on the track would leave him buried under a ton of bricks, with too little time left in the season to dig out of the hole and push towards a Nextel Cup title.
This time, Johnson figured out that kissing those bricks might give him a better shot.
After being forced to pit for a flat left front tire, Johnson came all the way back from 38th place to take the lead, then came back up through the field a second time with 13 laps remaining to capture the win in the 13th annual Brickyard 400. After taking four tires under yellow, Johnson found himself 8th on a lap 147 restart behind four cars that had chosen not to pit, two cars that had taken just two tires, and one that had taken four. All of them proved to be no match for the Lowe's Chevrolet, as Johnson quickly reclaimed the lead by lap 151 and hung on until the checkered flag, finishing comfortably ahead of second place finisher Matt Kenseth. Kevin Harvick, rookie Clint Bowyer, and Mark Martin rounded out the Top 5. Johnson joins Dale Jarrett as just the second driver in Nextel Cup history to win both the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year.
Who Should Have Won: Johnson. No question about it, Johnson clearly had the superior setup underneath his hot rod on this day. Lucky his tire problem came just before a competition caution on lap 40, Johnson was able to pit, fix the tire and the damage, and restart on the lead lap. That was all the 48 team needed, with a fantastic car setup allowing Johnson to pass at will on one of the most difficult tracks to pass, period. Finally taking the lead on lap 117, Johnson led 33 of the final 43 circuits, and the win would have never been in doubt had a late caution for debris not jumbled up the field.
Five Questions You Should be Asking After the Race Weekend:
1) Can Johnson's win give him the boost he needs to propel him to his first Nextel Cup title?
The famous phrase "don't count your chickens before they hatch" comes to mind here, especially when the Chase hasn't even started yet. Still, you've got to admit this victory is a big step in the right direction for the 48 team's title chances. This win wasn't just about them getting over their problems at Indy; it's about getting over their problems the entire month of August. Indy marks the first time in Johnson's five year career he's won a race during that month, and only the third time in 17 career starts he's led more than 2 laps in an August Cup race.
Indy has a history of producing champions; five of the last eight Brickyard 400 winners went on to win the Cup championship that same year, with all but one of those champions retaining their points lead through every race the rest of the season. Tony Stewart in 2005 was the lone exception, but even then, he still managed to wind up winning the points title rather convincingly. Now with pre-Chase momentum he's never had before, Johnson hopes to do the same this year.
2) Considering all the attention given to tire wear early in the race, did it really play that much of a factor?
For a select few, it did, but overall, you have to give both Goodyear and Nextel Cup teams credit for making the necessary adjustments to keep tire wear on target during the race. Sure, there were some ugly moments, like Jimmie Johnson's left front incident and Kurt Busch's three flat tires on the weekend, from the Saturday practice crash through Sunday's checkered flag.
Overall, though, the two competition cautions NASCAR through on lap 15 and lap 40 gave teams the necessary time they needed to make adjustments on air pressures and dial back their setups to keep those tires inflated. In hindsight, you would have to think that with the magnitude of this race and the limits NASCAR places on adjusting so many parts of these race cars nowadays, a lot of the tire problems on the weekend may have come from teams simply ignoring air pressure recommendations from Goodyear and trying to go for the jugular by setting their cars up with as little air in their tires as possible, especially on the left front. Not that Goodyear hasn't been to blame plenty of times recentlyâ€¦but it's hard to believe this one was 100% their fault.
3) When will Jeff Burton finally get over the hump and break his winless streak?
When his team can finally put together a setup for all 160 laps. As good as RCR and Burton have been this year, they just can't seem to get the 31 car perfect in the final segment of a race. Starting from the pole, Burton paced the field for 87 of the first 109 circuits - then lost the handle for the final 51. It seemed the car lost its edge when back in traffic, and the crew just couldn't adjust against that aero push. Finishing 12th, Burton had another good points dayâ€¦but considering how good he was the first half of this race, that's hardly satisfying.
4) Has Roush Racing turned the corner in a roller coaster season?
Three Roush cars finished in the Top 10 on Sunday. That used to be standard operating procedure for this bunch - but in a season of ups and downs, it marks the first time that's happened for Roush since Dover seven races ago. In fact, at one point Roush had all five of its cars in the Top 9, before late race problems befell both Jamie McMurray and Greg Biffle. Clearly not in a position to land all five cars in the Chase like it did a year ago, Roush still can land up to three, and their ability to get all five cars up to speed and sharing good information is critical to the title chances of Matt Kenseth, Mark Martin, and Greg Biffle (should he still sneak in).
5) How has Michael Waltrip's DNQ affected Toyota in 2007?
Barring a miracle, it's taken Waltrip's 55 car out of the Top 35 for the rest of the season - meaning that six of seven's Toyota's teams will have to qualify on speed for 2007. With the current qualifying rules, that's a daunting prospect (although they could be changed between now and February). Meanwhile, Waltrip's DNQ marked the first time since Phoenix in 1998 he failed to start a Cup event, and the first time since November 23, 1975 that no Waltrip was in a Cup starting field.
Matt Kenseth – Second wasn't the Indy win Kenseth craved, but it was needed to right a ship that had floundered a bit since getting hit by the S.S. Jeff Gordon at Chicago. Starting 20th, Kenseth slowly worked his way to the lead by lap 110 and led seven laps on the day before becoming Johnson's understudy for the rest of the race, keeping the points lead within reach.
Kevin Harvick – For the first time since August 2003, Harvick has now strung together four Top 5 finishes. Coming home 3rd in this year's version of the Brickyard, the run bumped up his career average finish at Indianapolis to 7.8, easily one of the best among active drivers.
Clint Bowyer – After both Tony's Pocono retaliation and wrecking in the Busch race at ORP on Saturday night, Bowyer was a rookie in need of some confidence. A second place qualifying run at the Brickyard backed up with a fourth place finish did just that. Solid pit strategy to take two tires under yellow on lap 144 bumped Bowyer into the Top 10 and he never backed down, actually climbing two spots from sixth to fourth in the race's final laps.
Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – After running 30th or so the whole day, Tony Eury, Jr.'s pit strategy during the lap 144 caution was simple - don't pit at all, cross the fingers, and hope for the best. Turns out the 8 car ran better in cleaner air, restarting second of the four cars that didn't pit and briefly taking the lead from fellow "no pit" driver Kyle Busch before fading back to the clutches of Johnson, Kenseth, and others. Still, the move brought Junior up to a 6th place finish, a personal best at Indy, and most importantly, bumped him back into the Top 10 in points.
Kasey Kahne: For months, Kahne has talked about how much he looked forward to Indy, confident he'd have a car good enough to win. Instead, months from now Kahne may look back and regret how this race cost his team a spot in the Chase. After qualifying fourth, Kahne led just one lap and was never a factor, his car's handling slowly worsening with each pit stop. On the final lap, Kahne was simply battling for a spot in the Top 10 when he got loose while battling with Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards. Slamming the wall, the 9 car was unable to finish, dropping its finishing position all the way down from 9th to 35th and placing Kahne outside the Chase standings looking in.
Greg Biffle: Biffle, too, may point to this race in September as the one that sent his Chase hopes crashing down. Running in the Top 10 most of the day, The Biff was in perfect position for a good points finish until he got a little too racy with Robby Gordon on the last lap. The two cars collided, both spun into the infield, and by the time Biffle got going, he had fallen back to 33rd.
Jeff Gordon : Pushing hard to grab his record fifth Brickyard 400 victory, the weekend for the 24 bunch quickly became a nightmare. After struggling in practice, the left front sway bar on the DuPont Chevrolet broke on lap eight, and by the time the crew could fix it, Gordon was two laps down before the first competition caution on lap 15. Timely yellow flags put the 24 car back on the lead lap, but once there the car never truly performed to Gordon's liking, eventually bringing the car home 16th.
Boris Said : Fan favorite and media darling at Daytona after a Top 5 run, Indy proved to be a bit of a setback for Said and his small No. 60 team. Just squeaking into the field after qualifying 43rd, the race was barely 50 miles old before Reed Sorenson's bumper introduced the Sobe No Fear Ford to the beauty of Indy's outside walls. Said finished the race in 42nd and sitting in the garage.
Johnson and Kenseth remain 1-2 in the standings after finishing 1-2 on Sunday, with the difference between the two now up to 107 points. Jeff Burton remains third, 366 behind the leader, with Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch tied for fourth.
Mark Martin had a solid fifth place run at the Brickyard and remained sixth in points, with Denny Hamlin, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. each moving up one spot in the standings to seventh, eighth, ninth, and 10th. Kahne's crash dropped him from 7th to 11th, 34 behind Junior for the final Chase spot, while Greg Biffle, Kurt Busch, and Carl Edwards remained 12th, 13th, and 14th, respectively, each with dwindling hopes of cracking the Top 10.
"It'll take a little time to soak in. I never thought I'd ever win at this race track - we've had such a drought at this race track - and now we've got a victory." Jimmie Johnson
"Guys, this is honestly the best weekend of my life! I have a great toy box (Hendrick Motorsports). I just go in there and I get to pick and choose all the stuff I need. Their confidence is always so high, that anytime something comes up, we just dig deeper." Chad Knaus, crew chief for Jimmie Johnson
"Jimmy came out of nowhereâ€¦he was just flying. The best car won. Them guys did a great job recovering from their problem like they always do. They had everybody covered." Matt Kenseth
"It hurt. It still hurts, but that's racing. We battled that car, battled the tires, battled everything all day trying to get a Top 10 and didn't make it backâ€¦we've been trying hard, but we haven't had the best of breaks in probably the last two monthsâ€¦it makes you mad. You want to race good." Kasey Kahne
"We've got to tune up to be a championship contender, but it's all here. This old man ain't gave up yet." Mark Martin
"Carl Edwards is the Eddie Haskell of NASCAR." Tony Stewart, when asked about the incident at Pocono between him, Bowyer, and Edwards
"Tony's just a moron, that's the bottom line." Carl Edwards, when asked about the incident at Pocono between him, Bowyer, and Stewart
Going from the history of Indy to the serenity of summer in western New York, the Nextel Cup series will tackle the challenge of a road course for the second and final time this season at Watkins Glen. The AMD At the Glen is scheduled to be televised Sunday at 1:00 EST, live on NBC and MRN.
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