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Johnson wins tire fiasco at Indianpolis

Sunday, July 27, 2008

By WILL GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmie Johnson wasn't about to get caught again.

Two weeks after letting Kyle Busch steal victory in Chicago, Johnson made sure to keep Busch and everybody else in his rearview mirror during Sunday's NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

It wasn't easy during a bizarre afternoon at the historic track as tire problems turned the 400-mile race into a series of short sprints that left pit crews hopping and drivers cautious.

As the long, frustrating afternoon wore on, Johnson never lost his patience, and when it came time for the final restart with seven laps to go he made sure not to make the same mistakes that let Busch slip by.

Though Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin pressured Johnson down the stretch, the two-time Series champion Johnson never worried he didn't have enough car to pick up his second win at the Brickyard.

"I knew I could blast it up there and be OK," Johnson said.

The chance to kiss the bricks proved cathartic for Johnson, who spent two weeks beating himself up for his uncharacteristic miscues at Chicago. When Hamlin and Edwards made their moves, Johnson deftly kept them at bay, though Johnson said it was hardly as easy as it looked.

"Those last seven laps were white knuckle to say the least," Johnson said.

This time, Johnson's knuckles were their usual unflappable selves.

One of NASCAR's most intelligent drivers, Johnson thrives on races that rely as much on tactics and precision as horsepower.

Sunday, he had all three.

While other drivers kept changing strategy, sometimes taking four tires, sometimes taking two in an effort to gain time in the pits, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus never wavered.

Taking four tires at nearly every opportunity, Johnson had little trouble making up lost ground once he got back on the track. He led a race-high 71 laps, making his way to the front eight separate times.

"We're in it for the long haul, not looking for quick gains," Johnson said. "We took four tires more than anyone. We went out there, stuck to a plan and were smart about it."

That intelligence paid off during the constant stop/start nature of the race, though team owner Rick Hendrick said things would have been the same if the entire race had been run under green.

"We had a car, if we could have raced all day hard, the results would have been the same," Hendrick said. "He's been on a tear and we needed that."

The win lifted Johnson by Edwards into fourth in the season points standings and in prime position for NASCAR's postseason this fall.

Not bad for a driver whose team struggled to get it together during the spring. Johnson won the pole at Daytona but finished 27th, and the climb back has been a slow one.

Sunday's victory was just Johnson's second of the season, and he admits fumbling away several trips to Victory Lane when calculated gambles didn't pay off.

"We didn't have the cars that we needed and we needed to get to work," Johnson said. "It's nice to see we're coming through the tall grass now."

So apparently, are Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gordon led seven laps before finishing fifth, and Earnhardt wound up 11th despite blowing a tire early on. All three are almost assured of a spot in the Chase.

"This thing is wide-open," Johnson said. "We're gaining a lot of momentum. Two or three more weeks of racing up front for the win and we'll be right where we want to be when the Chase starts."

Winning Indy tends to help. Six of the last 10 Brickyard winners have gone on to win the Cup, including Johnson in 2006.

While his second Indy victory didn't pack the emotional wallop of the first, in a way it may have been more rewarding considering how far the team has come this season.

"We've been working a lot of hours, this win is extremely rewarding in a lot of ways," Johnson said.



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