Commentary

Good options not named Johnson

Updated: July 27, 2013, 5:21 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's 8 a.m. on Saturday, and Jimmie Johnson is giving his second-annual see-what-members-of-the-media-will-show-up-this-early news conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Normally, the Hendrick Motorsports driver would have run a marathon, swam 2.4 miles in the nearby White River and pedaled his bike 45 laps around this historic 2.5-mile track while most of his competitors -- and the media -- slept.

If there were a mountain nearby, he might have hiked up it or scaled a few walls.

But on this morning, Johnson got up at 5:30 a.m. for his run, saw it was raining, decided "I don't want it that bad today" and went back to bed before watching another episode of "Dora the Explorer" with his 3-year-old daughter.

"It sucks you in," Johnson says of the animated educational television series. "Can't help it. It's like staring at a bright light. You can't turn away."

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesJimmie Johnson is the odds-on favorite to win Sunday, and he looks like it.

Is Five-Time getting complacent? Lazy even?

Don't count on it.

When the green flag drops for Sunday's 20th running of the Brickyard 400, Johnson will be the favorite to kiss the bricks at IMS for a record-tying fifth time. He's starting second.

"He will be fast as usual," teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. "I'll be surprised if they're not one of the more competitive teams."

It would be shocking if Johnson wasn't.

He dominated last year's event, leading 99 of 160 laps and spending only five laps outside the top three for a perfect 150 driver rating. No other driver has accomplished that at any track in the past three seasons.

He's won four of the last seven races here, tying him with teammate Jeff Gordon for the most wins in a stock car; Rick Mears, A.J. Foyt and Al Unser have four wins in the Indianapolis 500.

Johnson appears destined to tie and eventually eclipse Michael Schumacher for most all-time wins at IMS. Schumacher won the defunct Formula One U.S. Grand Prix five times.

"They will be very tough," Gordon says of Johnson's team. "They certainly are in championship form, and I'd have to put them at the top of the list of teams to beat."

The No. 48 team is in a league of its own, winning two of the last six races and having a car that easily could have won four times during that streak to build a 56-point lead in the standings.

Throw in that Johnson is at one of his best tracks and -- well, you do the math.

"For the rest of us, we're going to put all that aside and run our race to see if we can finish ahead of the 48," Gordon says. "If you can do that, you're probably going to win this race."

In "Dora the Explorer" terminology, that driver would be the Swiper, the sneaky orange fox who tries to steal the key items that help Dora continue on her adventure.

With that, here are five Swipers who could derail Johnson's journey to immortality at Indianapolis:

• Juan Pablo Montoya: He's my pick to kiss the bricks. He won the 2000 Indianapolis 500 and should have won the Brickyard 400 in 2009 and 2010, particularly 2009 where he blew the victory with a pit-road speeding penalty on the final stop after leading a race-high 116 laps.

He was fastest in Friday's first practice and third-fastest in Saturday's final practice.

Can you say swiper del zorro?

Zorro is fox in Montoya's first language, Spanish.

• Tony Stewart: A win would be kind of fitting since all everybody has talked about all week is the successful debut of the Truck Series race on his half-mile track in Rossburg, Ohio. Stewart was on cloud nine Wednesday, with a euphoric look like I've never seen on the two-time Brickyard winner.

He's also pretty good here with two wins and an 8.2 average finish that is his second best at any track, way better than Johnson's average of 16.8.

If he wins, we could change his nickname from Smoke to ElDora the Explorer.

• Jeff Gordon: In case you've forgotten, he's won this race four times, including the first one 20 years ago. He should have won two years ago when Paul Menard beat him with crazy fuel mileage, and he was fifth a year ago. In the last six Brickyards, he has four top-5s and five top-10s.

And don't think for one second that he doesn't want to beat Johnson to five Indy wins as much as he wants to tie him with five Cup championships.

• Kurt or Kyle Busch: Kurt hasn't finished better than 10th in the last nine Brickyards, and he hasn't had a top-5 here since his first race in 2001. But he was fastest in Saturday's final practice and each week he gets closer to Victory Lane. Kyle was second here a year ago and has six top-10s in eight tries.

This race needs a spark, and one of NASCAR's so-called bad boys in Victory Lane might do it.

• Danica Patrick: Hey, Menard won here two years ago and Patrick has better credentials at the track. OK, so they were in IndyCar, where she finished third in 2009 and had six top-10s in seven races. But like Daytona, where she's proved to be decent, this is a place where you can hold the foot to the gas much of the way around.

Or as Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Ryan Newman told her, "Go flat until you see God and then lift."

Wouldn't that be a big Swipe?

Of course, none of these drivers really have a chance unless Johnson wakes up on Sunday and decides he doesn't want it that bad. Or if his eyes are so bloodshot over watching "Dora the Explorer" that he can't maintain his focus.

Again, don't count on it.

David Newton | email

ESPN Carolina Panthers reporter

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