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Jimmie Johnson says his guys have championship 'magic,' and he's ready for the chase

Jimmie Johnson says his guys have championship 'magic,' and he's ready for the chase

Kissing the bricks, and ready for the playoffs to begin

   By Mike Mulhern

   No other way to describe it.
   Jimmie Johnson took the field and rubbed everyone's nose in the dirt. Er, bricks.
    And rivals Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin said Johnson's car looked like it was a step beyond. Kyle Busch said everyone suddenly has a lot of work cut out.
   With the championship playoffs starting in just a few weeks, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus, with Sunday's powerful victory in the Brickyard 400, just rocked every other team here back on its heels.
     Johnson led 99 of the 160 laps, and he was simply untouchable, finishing nearly five seconds ahead of runner-up, the largest margin of victory ever here at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
    If anyone expects to challenge Johnson and Knaus for the title -- which would be an amazing sixth for them -- they'd better be packing stronger iron than they had here Sunday.
    "This fourth -- I'm able to join racing legends -- my heroes, people I've looked up to my entire life," Johnson said, enjoying letting the emotions soak in. "To join them is a huge, huge honor."



   Johnson didn't come into this sport with a silver spoon in his mouth. He's a working class hero, from San Diego, and he knows he was lucky to catch somebody's eye and get on the fast road to NASCAR.
   "I remember sitting in El Cajon... I remember being hot sitting at home  I don't know if we had an airconditioner.  I'm sure we did, but it wasn't on," Johnson said reflecting on his teenage days watching the Indy 500.
   "I remember it was the only race I would sit and watch in its entirety. A lot of racing moments I remember: Danny Sullivan's spin-and- win, Tom Sneva crashing before the race even started, trying to warm up the tires and spun and hit the inside wall.
    "I also remember different points where I would take the couch and turn it at the wall and build a cushion tunnel to sit in and pretend I was a race car driver, and watch the race.
     "I was young and just a huge fan of racing. 
    "My dad's dad was a big fan of AJ Foyt; he's the one who owned the motorcycle shop where my dad worked and where I got my start from riding dirt bikes. 
    "I grew up in a family full of race fans. 
    "I'm the first racer of the group... and it's amazing, going from being a fan chasing autographs, and standing on the fence holding on, looking in... now I'm on the inside doing what I am on the track. 
     "It's been a wild experience.
      "I went to Riverside in '85 or '86 and watched Cup cars with my dad... watched Rick (Hendrick) run a Winston West car I think it was. My dad said "That guy in the Folgers car is the car owner for the other car...."
    The Tim Richmond days...
      "Another experience I remember is in Del Mar  -- they had an IMSA (sports car) race, and Bobby Rahal was there and won, and wore everybody out. 
      "When I was around the people I knew and looked up to, I'd just stand and watch, more in awe. 
     "I did that same thing with Rick (Mears), watching him over the years. 
      "My connection to Rick was he gave me hope as a driver coming out of the offroad ranks that I could race in Indy-car or go to the asphalt and race.  His brother Roger Mears, and Roger Jr. raced the offroad trucks, and I watched them. 
     "My dad was working in the sport, so I was around. And then Casey (Mears) and I  when there were only a few kids in the pits --we were on our little BMX bikes riding around and hanging out.
     "So I just gravitated toward the Mears gang.  They were all great people, and I spent a little bit of time with Rick over the last few years.  He's moved back to North Carolina now, and I probably hear more through Casey about how he's doing than really see him.  I don't have a chance to see him often.
      "But I do remember watching television trying to watch him race. And I remember his fire out here on the front stretch.  I remember a few of his wins.
       "It's cool to be here on this track doing the same thing."

     Sunday was also an afternoon for some reflecting by the other Rick, Hendrick:
     "I got a call from Herb Fishel when Jimmie was about 16, I guess.  Herb Fishel was the head of racing for Chevrolet, and he said 'We've got this guy in offroad trucks... I'd like to see have a shot.'
    "I saw him pop up, I think, in the Busch Series; Jeff Gordon was with me and my son Ricky at Darlington, and we were parked pretty close to him, and he was on top of the board or second on the board. So we thought 'We'll go over and ask Jimmie about how to get around this place. Jeff and Ricky did, and I was with them.  And Jimmie said 'Well, this is the first time I've ever seen the place.'"

    Here, in the short Saturday of practice leading up to the 400, "I knew second or third lap on the track that we were going to have an awfully good chance at winning," Johnson said.
   But when pressed about his very impressive run, Johnson insisted he had challengers:
    "Denny Hamlin had great pace at the start of the race.  I couldn't get up there and challenge him at the start of the race. 
    "I don't know what happened to him;  I didn't see him the rest of the day.
    "Brad Keselowski had great pace, even on older tires (Keselowski tried a different pitting sequence).  He held me off and Jeff off for a long time. 
     "And Jeff (Gordon), I feel like I had pace on Jeff at the start of a run, but at the end of a run he'd creep back up to us.
    "I didn't see Kyle Busch all day, or Greg Biffle. I just knew that Brad and Denny and Jeff were gone, and then there was another group.
     "So at the end I think our strength looked more than it was because Jeff and Brad weren't around. If either one had been up there with us and had track position at the end, we would have had one heck of a race on our hands."

   Maybe but probably not.
   And suddenly the championship playoffs are on the table for study.
    "We're as strong as we've ever been," Johnson says. 
    "We've had issues late in a race that have cost us track position for a variety of reasons. That's the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the chase starts.
     "But from a performance standpoint, these are amazing race cars.  We've made a lot of progress.
   "I feel really good about the chase.  I'm ready for it to start.
    "The chase last year wasn't the strong part of the season for us. I feel the product we're taking to the track this year is far superior to what we had then. 
     "Our shortcomings of last year are corrected right now, and that's why I want the chase to start immediately, so we don't have time to be caught or lose our magic.
     "It's tough to stay on top consistently week-in and week-out, and for a long stretch of time.  A 10race stretch is just long enough to have some magic and watch it leave.  You watch Tony Stewart and what he did last year and the magic he pulled through.
     "When I look at it, I feel we're going to be stronger than we were last year.
       "Every single point is going to count, and you need to win races.  We've always known that, but last year was more evidence of that than ever."


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