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THIRD PLACE

Not to be Denied
David Caraviello, The Post and Courier

INDIANAPOLIS – His last trip to Indianapolis Motor Speedway left him slumped woozily on the pit wall, literally smacked in the head so hard he couldn't remember climbing out of his car. It was the kind of molar-rattling accident that defined Jimmie Johnson's first few starts at auto racing's most storied venue, a run of fires and failures and title hunts gone awry.

It seemed that way even early Sunday, after Johnson blew a tire, was sent to the rear of the field for pitting too early, and had a fire erupt in his pit stall after his crew spilled fuel during a stop. Plagues of boils and locusts were surely on the way when Johnson found an additional gear and won so easily his competitors were left awestruck.

"The 48 (car) just came out of nowhere," runner-up Matt Kenseth said. "He was real fast. There was no way to beat him."

Johnson rallied from the early tire problem, took the lead with 10 laps remaining, and shucked his Indy misfortunes with a dominating finishing kick in the Allstate 400 at the Brickyard. The victory at a track where Johnson had an average finish of 25th made the Daytona 500 champ the second driver to sweep the season's two biggest races, and left only the Nextel Cup title yet to be attained.

"I've doubted my ability to run this track. The team has doubted what we've been able to do here. We've been kicking ourselves for years coming to this track. From test sessions to races, we just haven't been competitive," said Johnson, who earned $452,861 for his 22nd career Nextel Cup victory.

"This track has been an emotional disaster for us, or some kind of disaster. Hitting the wall, running bad, whatever it is, it's taken the wind out of our sails. To get past this, I'm just so proud of what we've done, I just want to go sit down and reflect and think about it."

A brief history of Johnson's travails at Indy: 2002, failed to qualify on time; 2003, in second place before a long pit stop and a spin; 2004, blew an engine; 2005, didn't get to qualify because his car failed inspection, spun 75 laps in, took a penalty after the catch-can was left on his car during a pit stop, and had to be helped out by his crew after a hard hit ignited a fire under the hood.

Even standing still, there were problems. Crewmen scurried back and forth to the garage Sunday as the field prepared to roll off the grid, looking for batteries to replace the dead ones inside the radio. No wonder the team's goal coming to Indy was just a top-10 finish.

"It's baffling," crew chief Chad Knaus said. "I can't believe we won here, to be honest with you."
Sunday brought some rare Indy luck for the No. 48 team. Because of tire concerns stemming from Kurt Busch's blowout in practice Saturday, NASCAR mandated two competition cautions around laps 15 and 40 to monitor tire wear. The latter came out one lap after Johnson's blowout, sending him back to 38th but helping him stay on the lead lap.

"When Jimmie had the flat tire, I just thought, 'Man, this place has got it in for me bad,'" Knaus said. "I didn't know what to do. But the guys buckled down and did a great job."

Johnson led 33 laps, but after a debris caution with 18 remaining forced a final round of pit stops, he found himself in eighth place behind four drivers who stayed out, two others who took two tires, and Kenseth. As the cars funneled into Turn 1 on a manic restart, Johnson went high and was eventually able to squeeze by Kenseth, who chose the low line and found himself boxed in.

"He just got through traffic better than us," Kenseth said. "We beat him out of the pits, and the cars with no tires and two tires were kind of bottled up a little bit. They were two-wide going into Turn 2, and I chose the bottom and drove under (Joe) Nemechek and lost all my momentum down the straightaway. He got to the outside with somebody pushing him, and just got by me in traffic."

One by one, Johnson picked off the drivers who chosen two or no tires. With 10 laps remaining he overtook leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose decision to stay out turned a miserable afternoon into a sixth-place finish that might have saved his season.

But there was no catching Johnson, who took the white flag before a multi-car crash marred the final lap.

"I don't even know how I could have adjusted my car," said Kevin Harvick, who finished third. "He went by me so fast, I couldn't analyze what he was doing. Sometimes you have days like that. He just beat us today."

Pole winner Jeff Burton had the dominant car early, leading a race-high 87 laps but fading late with handling issues. Johnson led 33 of the final 44 laps to build a 107-point lead over Kenseth in the championship standings, notable at a place where his late-season slides typically find their starting point.

He's already claimed NASCAR's three crown jewels — the Brickyard, the Daytona 500, and the Coca-Cola 600. The only thing left is a championship, something Johnson isn't prepared to celebrate just yet.
"We got over a big hurdle today, one that's really plagued us in the past," he said. "But there's too much racing left. ... It's too early to get too confident about anything.”