Johnson picks up momentum by winning dream race

INDIANAPOLIS -- Fitting that, in the end, it was tires that won the race for Jimmie Johnson, for it was tires, in the beginning, which threatened to continue Johnson's Indianapolis Motor Speedway woes.

Johnson, who had fallen to 38th after blowing a left-front tire only 39 laps into the 160-lap event, changed four tires on the final restart of the day and then used those fresh wheels to pass seven cars and rev celebratory burnouts before kissing that famous yard of bricks lining the finish line at Indy.

"We overcame a left-front flat tire and rallied back," he said. "We drove all the way to the front. I'm totally speechless."

The first laps Johnson ever led at Indy came at a critical time. The race's final caution came out with Johnson leading the way and only 18 laps remaining. Thus, the question that fell to Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to answer was, stay out and hope track position proves supreme or pit and drive the mess out of fresh tires?

As the rest of the field waited to see what the 48 team would do, crew chief Chad Knaus showed why Hendrick Motorsports just signed a contract extension with him. He called Johnson into the pits, and the rest of the leaders followed.

Some mired in the back of the field, however, decided differently. A handful of drivers, including Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Joe Nemechek and Clint Bowyer, either stayed out or changed just two tires. With 16 laps to go once the race restarted, Johnson and Co. would soon find out whether tires were, indeed, worth more than track position.

On the restart, Matt Kenseth and Johnson swooped ahead of most of the lapped cars, with only Busch, Junior and Bowyer able to take advantage of track position to stay out front. But their moment was short-lived. Not even a lap after Junior managed to get by Busch to take the lead amid a roar of approval from the fans, Johnson made the official race-winning pass.

Johnson had come out of the pits behind Kenseth for the restart, but took Kenseth on the outside and set himself up as the lead car with fresh tires. That proved to be the most important pass of the day, as he proceeded to cruise past Busch and, finally, Junior with ease.

"He just got through traffic better than us," said Kenseth, who finished second. "We beat him out of the pits and the cars with no tires and the cars with 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 of my momentum down the straightaway. [Johnson] got to the outside with somebody pushing him and just got by me in traffic. He just did a better job of being in the right place getting through those cars."

At that point, Kenseth said he knew the race was Johnson's to lose. Kevin Harvick said he had the same thought, but he still couldn't figure out how Johnson had ever gotten back into contention.

When a left-front tire goes down, the usual byproduct is a severely torn up fender. That's what Harvick assumed had happened to Johnson. He also assumed he wouldn't see much out of the 48 the rest of the day.

"The 48 kind of appeared out of nowhere," Harvick said. "When he first came by me, I thought he was a couple laps down."

Harvick wasn't the only one who was surprised. The 48 squad was pretty shocked, themselves. Johnson couldn't believe that the blown tire didn't mess up the fender more. And he was thankful that a caution flag soon after saved him from falling off the lead lap when the tire did go down.

"I knew we had a fast race car," he said, "but I knew I had to come through traffic and I knew that would be harder on the tires coming through traffic."

Knaus assured Johnson that everything was going to be OK. "He sounded convincing, too," Johnson said, but the California native continued to harbor doubts. It wasn't until he'd gone through two green-flag runs while posting some of the fastest laps of anyone on the track that he was confident the tires would hold up and he might have a shot at winning.

"I knew, at that point, that we had a car that could win," he said.

Even then, team owner Rick Hendrick had doubts Johnson could win after he saw some cars not pit, or short-pit, in order to gain track position.

"I think those last 20 laps were the longest," said Hendrick, who became a five-time winning car owner at Indy with Johnson's victory and Jeff Gordon's four previous wins. "That last caution came out and I thought, 'Boy, this can't be happening.' [Johnson] did a heck of a job getting back to the front."

Johnson shook his head in amazement after laying a wet one on the bricks. He wiped the brake dust and tire rubber from his lips, remnants left on the track from his burnouts.

"I just can't believe it," he said he was thinking at the time.

Hard to tell what was most unbelievable. With his victory in the Daytona 500 back in February and, now, this Brickyard win, Johnson became the second racer to ever sweep NASCAR's two biggest races. His win in this year's all-star race gives him the distinction of winning the three highest-paying events on the schedule.

Or was Johnson referring to his disbelief that he, the kid who watched Rick Mears and A.J. Foyt conquer this speedway so many times and dreamed he might steer a car to Victory Lane, too, actually had accomplished that improbable goal? In a stock car, no less.

Johnson didn't want to talk championship on Sunday, but his disbelief might have stemmed from a feeling, one which he labored to leave unspoken, that this might be the year.

After all, he was a strong contender for the title the past two seasons. Each year, though, his plans came unraveled at Indy. A 36th-place finish in 2004 knocked him from his perch atop the standings and he watched Kurt Busch win the title. A 38th-place finish last year preceded a decline to fifth as Tony Stewart, last year's Indy winner, claimed the championship.

This year the team leaves with more momentum than it's had at any other point this season.

"I doubted this racetrack," Johnson said. "I doubted my ability to run this racetrack. We've been kicking ourselves for years coming to this racetrack. We've been frustrated for years. This track has been an emotional disaster for us … We've left here and it's taken the wind out of our sails."

Not this year, though. This time, he leaves having stared repeated disaster in the face and stubbornly refused to go down. This year, he leaves Indy with his name in the history books.

"There was nothing of a championship on my mind today," he said. "I wanted this trophy over here with this brick on it. I wanted to pucker up and kiss those bricks on the front stretch. It was all about winning the race today."

Rupen Fofaria is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at rupenisracin@yahoo.com.