One for the thumb will have to wait
INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmie Johnson is a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion. But he came up just short in his quest to be the first five-time winner of the Brickyard 400.
Johnson was the dominant driver in Sunday's 160-lap contest at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway until a slow final pit stop turned a two-second lead over Ryan Newman into a seven-second deficit. The driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet was unable to overcome the disadvantage, crossing the line 2.658 seconds behind Newman.
Johnson led four times for a race-high 73 laps. Yet it was Newman who emerged at the front of the field once the various tire and pit-stop strategies played out. His No. 39 Quicken Loans Chevy was particularly effective on long, green-flag runs, denying Johnson the historic distinction of joining retired Formula One ace Michael Schumacher as a five-time winner at Indianapolis.
Newman's consistency on long runs was crucial in a race that was slowed by just three cautions for a total of 14 laps. The final 42 laps ran caution free, necessitating a final round of green-flag pit stops that proved the difference-maker.
With what seemed like a comfortable lead, Johnson's crew chief, Chad Knaus, called for a four-tire stop on Lap 133. It wasn't the No. 48 crew's best effort, taking an agonizing 17 seconds, compared to the sub-14 second stops Johnson had been benefiting from all day.
Newman's final stop a lap later was seven seconds faster, in part thanks to crew chief Matt Borland's call to take only two tires.
"We definitely had a mistake on pit road," Johnson said. "I think we had a 17-second stop, and we could have been four seconds closer leaving pit road. I would have been a lot closer to him, but catching them and passing them is different.
"Stuff happens," he continued. "When you're the dominant car, they're going to do the opposite of what you do. I think I pitted before them, so it was an easy call for them to do the opposite. The two [tire stop] gave them the track position they needed."
Johnson refused to question Knaus' call to take four tires, nor did he throw his crew under the bus after a subpar stop compared to the No. 48 team's usual standard.
"The biggest thing in my mind right now is that we win as a team and we lose as a team," he said. "There have been some late-race mistakes on my behalf that have taken race wins away from us. Granted, they weren't a major event like this!
"We still ended up second. We have a lot to be proud of this weekend and we'll try to let it roll off our shoulders. We had a great race car and great performance. Although it had plenty of speed, it wasn't the easiest thing to drive. It took a lot of risk to get past lapped traffic, but I was able to manage all that pretty well and maintain great track position for the bulk of the race."
With 20 laps to go, Newman's seven-second lead started to come down quickly. But once the leaders got into traffic, the gap stabilized, in part because Johnson's car was much more effective in clean air.
"Jimmie did a good job," Newman said. "He had a good car and he was good on restarts. But we had a better car on long runs and that's what won today.
"I got within about three seconds, but I beat myself up pretty bad," Johnson said. "I think Ryan was being smart, too, and once I got to a certain distance, I believe he decided to go 100 percent. They had plenty of speed today. When I saw him at the end, I knew I was going to have my hands full. Came up a little short; definitely not what we wanted, but a solid performance."
Having a race-winning car like we did, I hate to let an opportunity like this slip by. But it's gone. There's not a lot I can do about it and we'll come back and try again next year." -- Jimmie Johnson
Despite failing to take the victory, Johnson still had a good day in terms of the championship. He extended his lead to 75 points over Clint Bowyer (who finished 20th Sunday) and 85 points over Carl Edwards (13th Sunday).
The top eight drivers in the championship remained the same. Third-place finisher Kasey Kahne gained one spot to ninth, while Hoosiers Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart gained two spots, to 10th and 11th, respectively.
With a spot in NASCAR's Chase for the Championship a formality for Johnson, anything but a victory at Indianapolis was going to be a disappointment.
Schumacher's status as a five-time winner on the Indianapolis road course in the F1 United States Grand Prix hasn't created the same mystique enjoyed by the drivers who have won four times on the famed IMS oval -- A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears in the Indianapolis 500 -- and Johnson and his teammate and mentor Gordon in the Brickyard 400.
Indianapolis purists will forever debate whether five stock car wins trump four Indy car wins, but Johnson's second-place finish Sunday means the argument will have to wait at least one more year to resume.
Gordon, who won the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1994, finished seventh this year.
"Being a four-time winner isn't all that bad," Johnson said. "I can still go home with a smile on my face. Sure, I'd love to be a five-time winner, and today we were awfully close. But these things are so hard to win.
"Having a race-winning car like we did, I hate to let an opportunity like this slip by," he added. "But it's gone. There's not a lot I can do about it and we'll come back and try again next year."
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