- Ed Hinton, NASCAR
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmie Johnson seized command of Sprint Cup racing again on Sunday. He might not be merely back in the form that won him five straight championships from 2006-10. He may be even stronger, if the Brickyard 400 was an indication.
Dominant isn't the word. Listen to the hopelessness the distant runners-up felt in the race.
"If it wasn't for the 48," said Kyle Busch, plenty happy with second place, "we were probably in our own zip code on the rest of the field. But Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today."
"It really didn't matter if you were in front of him or not," said Greg Biffle, who was, briefly, after a caution. "He was going to pass you in about four or five laps anyway.
Sometimes you don't want the guy behind you if inevitably he's going to pass you no matter what.
"He ran me down in two laps, from 25 car lengths," Biffle said. That was on Lap 132 of the 160, and Johnson breezed away after that, opening a whopping five-second lead over Busch before easing up on the final two laps. Biffle wound up third.
"He could just put his car anywhere he wanted," Busch said. "He'd just stand on his gas pedal and take off from you. His car was down and diggin'."
This was also Johnson's fourth Brickyard win, tying the record of his teammate and mentor, Jeff Gordon. Four-time winners in other forms of racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway include A.J. Foyt, Al Unser Sr. and Rick Mears in the Indy 500, and Michael Schumacher in Formula One.
And so, "It's a huge moment," Johnson said. "With this fourth, I'm able to join racing legends, my heroes, people I've looked up to my entire life. So to join them is a huge, huge honor."
But not a surprise. Not at all.
Johnson had sensed how strong the 48 car would be from early on in Saturday morning's practice.
"I knew by the second or third lap yesterday on the track that we were going to have an awfully good chance of winning," he said. "I had a feeling. I just knew we were going to be fine.
"And then we went out there and put it on 'em."
"We were ready to go and ready to attack," Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, said matter-of-factly, "and it went really well."
Team owner Rick Hendrick also knew ahead of time.
"I talked with both of them last night, and Jimmie said it was the best car he'd ever had here," Hendrick said. "And I've seen him put on quite a show here before."
Each of the three times Johnson won here before -- in 2006, '08 and '09 -- he went on to win the championship.
And now, after the team faltered and finished sixth in points last year, "I feel really good about the Chase," Johnson said. "I'm ready for it to start."
Last year they couldn't gather their usual momentum going into the Chase. Now the "mo" is back full force.
The only time Johnson didn't feel in control was in the early stages of the race. Denny Hamlin led the first 26 laps.
"The 11 had a great pace at the start of the race," Johnson said. "I couldn't get up there and challenge him at the start of the race.
"I don't know what happened to him," Johnson continued. "I didn't see him the rest of the day."
Hamlin's car pushed up and he fell back on a restart on Lap 45, and he couldn't regain the track position that is so vital on the flat, 2.5-mile rectangle here.
After his strong start, "We had about a fourth-, fifth- or sixth-place car," Hamlin said, "and that's about where we ended up [sixth]."
Gordon, who finished fifth, said his car was equal to Johnson's but he could never force a duel because "we just couldn't get the track position."
Hendrick's team got a bonus on the day in that Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the lead in the points, on the strength of a fourth-place finish Sunday -- his best ever here.
The Hendrick cars "were the dominant cars," said Hamlin. "No one was going to run with them, especially the 48."
That's the kind of thing that was said of the 48 often, during the stretch of five straight.
Now, Johnson and Knaus are back. Maybe more than back. For an afternoon at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, they looked stronger than ever.
Uh-oh. The first three times Jimmie Johnson won the Brickyard 400, he went on to win the Sprint Cup championship. JJ is back, NASCAR Nation. Maybe more than back.