INDIANAPOLIS - The legions of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans were on their feet at the conclusion of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Brickyard 400 on Sunday, not because their hero won the prestigious race, but because he had assumed the lead in the season championship.
Finally, they thought, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that could signal that this is Earnhardt’s championship time after 12 seasons in Sprint Cup.
Well, I hate to tell them, but that the light they see is actually a train headed their way with a big No. 48
painted on its sides.
It was, after all, Jimmie Johnson who won Sunday’s race and it signalled that the five-time Sprint Cup champion is back, focused, and primed for a run at a six-pack.
What Johnson and the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team did Sunday was emphatically show that last season, when Tony Stewart ended their historic five-year Cup run, was merely a hiccup.
With the win Johnson sits in fourth place, 27 points behind Earnhardt.
And don’t think for a minute that Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus are not aware of what they accomplished on Sunday.
They wanted to send a message through the garage that they are back, and back big time.
“We put it on them today,” Johnson said. “It was a total team effort.”
If anyone thinks that Johnson’s domination — he led a total of 99 of 160 laps — was not so special just listen to what his competitors had to say.
Kyle Busch, who finished second in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, said he had never seen a driver as fast and dominant as Johnson was at the Brickyard.
“I didn’t know that you could go around this place that fast,” Busch said. “You talk about guys in their own zip code — he was in his own country today.”
And Busch’s JGR teammate Denny Hamlin, who led 27 laps before Johnson caught and passed him, said it was hardly even a contest.
“They had the dominant car,” Hamlin said. “No one was going to run with them.”
Greg Biffle, who finished third in the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford, may have put it best when he talked about what it was like when late in the race he beat Johnson out of the pits by taking only two tires.
“It wasn’t an advantage to be in front of (Johnson) because I knew he was going to catch and pass me anyway,” Biffle said.
That was the kind of impression that Johnson and Knaus wanted to leave.
It is also sign that even six championships, if they win this season, will not be enough for this crew.
The record of seven Sprint Cup championships held by Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt is a mark many in the sport figured would never be equalled.
Johnson at 36 years old is just entering his prime as a race car driver.
Not only could he match the magical seven mark, it is increasingly probable he could break it and become the greatest stock car driver ever, if he isn’t already.
A meeting has been set for this week between suspended Sprint Cup driver A.J. Allmendinger and team owner Roger Penske. The topic will almost certainly be Allmendinger’s future with the No. 22 Dodge team after he failed a NASCAR drug test last month. Penske told reporters at IMS Sunday that he usually fires employees who have failed a company drug test, but that Allmendinger, who his manager said tested positive for ampthetamines, is considered and independent contractor and not a full-time employee. Hardly anyone, however, expects Penkse keep Allmendinger around once his contract is up at the end of this season ... Kimi Raikkonen is telling folks that he is still considering a return to Ferrari to replace Felipe Massa, who is in the final years of his deal with the Italian team. Raikkonen drove for Ferrari from 2007 to ’09, winning the world championship in his first season there.
NUTS AND BOLTS
McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was able to hold off Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen to claim his second win of the 2012 Formula One season at the Hungarian Grand Prix.
Hamilton led from start to finish in the race in front of Raikkonen, who was second, and his Lotus teammate Romain Grosjean, who was third.
Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel was fourth with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso rounding out the top five.
Hamilton said his pole position was key to the victory over the Lotus pair.
“If they had qualified at the front it would have been impossible to get past them,” he said.
And Hamilton thinks the win puts him back in the championship picture where is in fourth place, 47 points back of Alonso with nine races left.
“If we can continue this kind of performance we can catch up,” he said.
NASCAR Sprint Cup
Jimmie Johnson won the Brickyard 400 on Sunday, moving him into a tie with his twin racing heroes — Rick Mears and Jeff Gordon — as four-time winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It also sent a signal that the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet team is gearing up for a run at a sixth Sprint Cup championship.
Sunday marked Johnson’s third win of the season, all but assuring him of a place in the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship that starts in six weeks at Chicagoland Speedway.
It was also Johnson’s 58th Sprint Cup win, putting him eighth on the all-time list and second to Gordon among active drivers.
Kyle Busch finished second in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota with Greg Biffle third in the No. 16 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. with a fourth place finish assumed the lead in the points parade.