Jimmie Johnson leaned against his car in the garage at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, smiling brilliantly, swapping stories with his crew and appearing as if he didn't have a worry in the world. The start of the Brickyard 400 was still 24 hours away, but Johnson already exuded an air of confidence—the same look he's boasted during the three seasons in which he's won at Indy and then gone on to take the Sprint Cup championship. "Over the years this track has been really good to me," Johnson said before Sunday's race. "I've really figured out how to drive the track."
Indeed he has. In the most dominating performance of the 2012 Cup season, Johnson took the checkered flag after leading for 247.5 of the race's 400 miles, winning by the largest margin (4.758 seconds) in the 19-year history of the event. For everyone else in the Cup series this is very bad news, because how a driver performs at Indy usually portends how he'll fare in the Chase (see chart).
Why? Two reasons: Teams bring their newest equipment—featuring the latest technological bells and whistles—to the Brickyard 400, which is considered one of NASCAR's four majors. (The others are the Daytona 500, the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.) And Indy's 2.5-mile oval is one of the most challenging tracks on the circuit; every turn requires different entry and braking points. A driver who is fast at the Brickyard has the car control to be fast anywhere.
"This is the turning point of the season," said Denny Hamlin, who finished sixth. "Everyone has got their [Chase] cars prepared, bringing them to the racetrack, tuning them up, and that's when you want to start running good."
Johnson certainly is. The five-time Cup champion, who finished sixth in the standings in 2011, has now won three of the last 10 races this season (he also took the checkered flag at the series All-Star race at Charlotte in May) and has six top five finishes over that stretch—both series highs. In their previous title runs, Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, have typically revved up in midsummer and then peaked at the start of the 10-race playoff in September. Up and down pit road after Johnson won for the fourth time at the Brickyard, every driver and crewman seemed gripped by a here-we-go-again feeling. "Jimmie," said Greg Biffle, who came in third, "was unreal."
Johnson struggled at the start of the season: He finished 42nd in the season-opening Daytona 500, and after six events he was in 10th place. But now with six races left in the regular season he's up to fourth, and he'll enter the Chase as one of two favorites to win the title. The other will be his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. After finishing fourth at the Brickyard, Earnhardt seized the overall points lead for the first time since 2004, surpassing Matt Kenseth, who crashed on Lap 132 and finished 35th. "I feel like we're very, very capable of winning the whole thing," Earnhardt says. "But we're going to have to deal with Jimmie. That's the reality." One that was made clear at Indy.