Tue, Aug 08, 2006 - Page 19 News List

Johnson struggles to believe he won at Yard of Bricks

AP , INDIANAPOLIS

Members of Jimmie Johnson's team kiss the bricks at the finish line after Johnson won the Allstate 400 at The Brickyard auto race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in Indianapolis on Sunday.

PHOTO: AP

Jimmie Johnson kneeled on the Yard of Bricks with a bewildered look on his face, almost oblivious to the celebration going on around him.

His car owner, crew chief and wife were ecstatic, exchanging hugs and high-fives as they eagerly prepared to kiss the famous stretch of track surface at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

But Johnson stared straight ahead, seemingly unable to grasp Sunday's gritty victory that ended a career of frustration at the Brickyard and made him the official favorite to win the Nextel Cup championship.

"I doubted this race track. I doubted my ability to get around this track," he said. "We've been kicking ourselves for years. So to get over this hurdle, to get past it, I am just so full inside and I just want to go sit down and reflect and think about it. Just go sit down in a corner and chill out and relax."

This win seemed doubtful from the start.

His radio wasn't working when he climbed into his Chevrolet on the starting grid, and his Hendrick Motorsports team worked frantically to fix it before the race began.

It took him just a handful of laps to figure out his car was stout enough to challenge for the win, but a flat tire 39 laps in nearly wiped it out.

"It really deflated me," he admitted.

Stressed that his fender has been damaged and the car had been reduced to junk, Johnson was subdued when he headed to pit road. His team changed the tire, crew chief Chad Knaus gave him a quick pep-talk, and Johnson was off. Only he was in 38th place.

He still sliced his way through the field and aggressively powered to the front with 160.93km to go.

The race was his to lose -- until a late caution for debris with 19 laps to go almost took it from him.

Johnson pitted for four fresh tires and was in eighth when the race resumed with 14 to go, stuck behind four cars that didn't pit, two that took only two new tires and Matt Kenseth.

But the traffic was never an issue, and Johnson was back out front for the final 10.

He crossed the finish line ahead of Kenseth moments before a final caution for a last-lap accident involving Chase for the Championship contenders Kasey Kahne and Greg Biffle.

It was his fourth victory of the season, third in a major NASCAR event. Johnson won the season-opening Daytona 500 -- the only event that trumps Indianapolis in prestige -- and also triumphed in NASCAR's All-Star race. He joins Dale Jarrett (1996) as the only driver to win at Daytona and Indy in the same season.

Now he'll have to see if he can translate his Indy win into a championship. The winner of the Brickyard automatically becomes the favorite to win the title, and five of the past eight went on to do it.

Johnson will now give it a try in his constant pursuit of an elusive first championship.

The perpetual points leader has never been able to put together a full season, and his swoon typically begins in Indy. He went into the race as the leader the past two seasons, but finished 36th in 2004 and 38th last year to cough it away to Tony Stewart -- who parlayed the victory into his second championship while Johnson faded all the way back to fifth.

Now Johnson will try to do the same.

"This has been the critical time leading into the championship, but this track has been an emotional disaster or some sort of disaster for us," he said. "I'm just speechless."

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