By his own standards, Jimmie Johnson had a pretty poor year in 2011: but with his third victory of the season at Indianapolis this weekend - his fourth in NASCAR at the legendary Speedway, the home of US motorsport - the five-time champion is looking re-energised in 2012 and very much back to his best. Which is bad news indeed for his rivals.
As a team, Hendrick Motorsports dominated the weekend just as they have dominated the Brickyard 400 for much of the past decade. Not only did Johnson's win put him equal with team mate Jeff Gordon's own achievement of a quartet of visits to victory lane at IMS, it also means both of them stand alongside Indianapolis 500 legends AJ Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears as four-time winners of an oval race at the Speedway. Add Michael Schumacher's five wins in the F1 US Grand Prix on the road course configuration and you're in pretty rarefied company.
Starting from sixth place on the grid, Johnson didn't immediately leap to the front. Instead it was polesitter Denny Hamlin who engaged in a spirited battle with fellow front row man Carl Edwards, but the #99's campaign didn't last long before Edwards started to drop back and lose positions to Johnson, Kyle Busch, Greg Biffle and Jeff Gordon. Clearly, he had problems.
"We think it is some issue with the ECU," said Edwards. "We changed that along with the spark plugs and the engine started running better." Even so, the ensuing emergency maintenance put him four laps off the lead by the time the problem was finally resolved through a series of visits to pit road, which was a disaster for last year's Sprint Cup runner-up as he's already well outside of making the Chase cut-off on points and desperately needed a pick-up in fortune.
"I don't think we are points racing anymore, I think we are officially racing only for wins," he confirmed after the race, conceding that his only realistic way of making the Chase now was to go for one of the wins wild cards. "We have to go race. We can do that, we can race like that. It will actually be a big relief in a way because there is no other choice. We just go race for wins. I wouldn't bet against us. We can do it."
With Edwards out of the picture, Johnson had picked up second spot to Hamlin and cruised around until the first round of pit stops, and when the cycle was completed it was Johnson now in front of Hamlin at pit exit to take the lead for the first time on lap 29, in what would prove to be the first of 99 laps at the top in total in the 160 lap race.
A turn 2 crash for Landon Cassill on lap 41 brought out the first caution of the day just after the completion of the first quarter of the race distance, allowing virtually everyone to come back onto pit lane for a yellow flag pit stop; the one hold-out at the front was Brad Keselowski, who had started down in 22nd position and was looking for some strategic way of shaking things up.
Keselowski was no match for Johnson's Indy form let alone his fresh set of tyres, and the 48 was back in the lead again just three laps later on lap 46, where he would stay through the next caution two laps later (for Clint Bowyer, who spun off onto the grass in turn 2) and for the next 25 laps in total.
Denny Hamlin had got way too high at the previous restart and dropped back to 14th place for his problems, and Brad Keselowski was unable to hold off Biffle for second at the sight of this latest green flag but was at least able to hold back Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon, who were looking almost as strong as their team mate in the lead: Johnson had deployed the afterburners and was taking off at the front. By lap 62 he had 2.5s in hand over Biffle, despite complaining of the car feeling a bit too loose.
The off-sync Keselowski was into the pits by this time, some ten laps ahead of the leaders Once the rest of the field did come in, Keselowski was back in front ahead of Johnson, Gordon and Biffle, with the only significant problem of that round going to Kurt Busch whose crew missed a lugnut. Busch was as calm, laid back and understanding about this mishap as you'd expect him to be (or to put it another way: the team comms got an instant adult rating for strong language.)
Little had changed as the race passed the halfway point, perhaps the biggest surprise being that Johnson's seemingly irresistible surge back to the front past Keselowski has seemingly stalled for the time being. Johnson had to wait until Keselowski came in for his next stop, still ten laps out of step with the rest of the field, on lap 91.
A caution came out just minutes later: Casey Mears had hit the wall in turn 2. That essentially put an end to Keselowski's off-sync strategy as everyone else now pitted, but it had worked out well for the #2 car as he stayed out for the lead, finding himself joined on the front row for the restart by Regan Smith who was working a fuel-only gambit.
It was not a good start for Keselowski, who nearly spun while battling Smith for the lead. He did well to save it, but he tumbled down the running order to seventh place. Smith briefly took the lead, but Johnson was on hand to pounce and take charge again, with Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle all quickly streaming past the #78 which plummeted out of the top ten on its worn tyres.
Gordon was concerned about debris on the grille sending his water temperature skyhigh, but once that was cleared up he was past Busch for second place, making it a Hendrick 1-2 at the front, followed by a Joe Gibbs Racing pairing of Busch and Hamlin in third and fourth. The status quo largely held until the next round of pit stops loomed, at which point the fourth caution was out for a blown left front tyre on Jeff Burton's car, allowing everyone to come in for a stop under yellow.
Greg Biffle won the race off pit road with a two-tyre-only call and was ahead of Johnson, Busch and Hamlin; Jeff Gordon meanwhile had suffered a poor stop and fallen back to sixth behind Earnhardt, leaving Gordon scratching his head about what had gone wrong.
"I have no idea, I have to review it," he said. "The one thing about this pit road is that if you get a little bit behind, once you get up here, you're way behind because they pull out in front of you and the next one pulls out in front of you and that's what happened. We lost more than we should have but that wasn't so bad.
"The worst thing was when you start on the outside lane - my car would just not go on that outside lane," he added. "And then they got all jumbled up and we lost even more spots. And then we had another caution on the outside lane again, so it just wasn't our day."
Biffle got a terrific start and shot clear of the pack, leaving Johnson and Busch to get physical in their battle for second spot in turn 2; but once Johnson cleared the #18 it took him no time at all to catch and flash past Biffle for the lead again down the backstretch a couple of laps later.
And then the race was under yellow again, for a multi-car wreck in turns 1 and 2 on lap 132. Joey Logano had been racing side-by-side with Trevor Bayne when he had got loose, slammed into the side of Bobby Labonte and then started to spin down the racetrack - which had been right in front of Sprint Cup championship points leader Matt Kenseth who had been minding his own business in the midfield pack. Kenseth ran straight into the #20 and suffered serious damage that left the #17 on fire as Kenseth scrambled clear. Logano managed to limp back to pit lane but his day was also pretty much over, while Bobby Labonte escaped relatively lightly from the fracas and was able to continue uncompromised.
"We could stay up in the top ten most of the day but we didn't have a better car than that," admitted Kenseth. "If you put us seventh or eight we could run there and if you put us 15th we would run there unfortunately.
"We got back there and some guys were driving pretty crazy. I guess at the very end of it the #21 [Bayne] and #78 [Smith] were mad at each other and running into each other and then the #20 [Logano] was trying to pass the #21 and just lost control of his car."
It was a costly accident for Kenseth, who would end up classified in 35th position. With his main rivals in the Sprint Cup standings performing well, it meant that Kenseth was ousted from the lead of the championship after Indianapolis.
With just 20 laps to run to the finish when the green flag came out, Johnson had no hesitation in blasting away from the field as fast as he could. Any concerns about whether they could make it all the way home on their current tank of gas seemed to be far from their minds. Kyle Busch tried to go with the #48 but he was soon two seconds down, despite being fast enough to leave third-placed Greg Biffle far in his wake in turn. With no further interruptions to the race through to the chequered flag, Johnson managed to end up with a 4.758s comfort zone over the field, the biggest margin of victory seen in a Brickyard 400.
"He was really, really fast," admitted Busch on pit lane after the race. "You could see it, too - on the restarts, when he could make it through the corners and he just put his car anywhere he wanted and would just slam on the gas pedal and take off from me. His car was down and digging."
Busch was satisfied with his own pace and felt he could do no more, even though he badly needs more race victories to secure his place in the Chase on a wins wild card. "If it wasn't for the #48, we were probably in our own zip code on the rest of the field," insisted Busch. "But Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today, so we couldn't keep up with him."
Even Jeff Gordon - who had been bidding to make history by becoming a five-time oval winner here and breaking that tie with Foyt, Unser and Rick Mears and now Johnson on four apiece - conceded that he wouldn't have been able to do anything about his team mate's form here today, even without that final pit stop stumble for the #24.
"I don't think we could have passed him," said Gordon, who ended the race in fifth place. "Those guys were definitely the class of the field today and had the track position. They're a strong team. They deserve that win today. They did everything. Jimmie did his job on the track and the team did their job in the pits. And they had a good car."
He was still ruing the missed opportunity, though - the latest of so many in 2012, it seemed to him. "I'm pretty disappointed really. It's always nice to finish in the top five but at this point in the season, the way our season has gone with so many missed opportunities that we've had, I feel like it was a little bit of a missed opportunity today. We needed track position there at the end and we didn't get it when it counted most and it cost us."
But in victory lane, there was pure joy for race winner Jimmie Johnson who seemed to be pinching himself at his latest success.
"To come here and win is a huge honour, then to have four wins I'm at a loss for words," he said of his record over the years at Indy. "I just hoped to come here and race, I had no idea this would turn out. I can remember back to watch the 500 with my grandfather and my dad sitting on the couch. My grandfather telling me stories about Indy and that he came here and was at the race track. I'm glad to have my own memories here for my family."
As well as the sentimental significance of the victory at Indy, it's also Johnson's third of the season to add to earlier wins at Darlington and Dover; that puts him equal with Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, and no one so far this season has won more. That means that as things stand, when the points are reset after Richmond in six races time on September 8, that trio will have the bonus points putting them at the top of the post-season Chase battle for the Sprint Cup.
Johnson potentially topping the table going into the Chase? That's good news indeed for the #48 crew, but bad news for almost everyone else in the NASCAR paddock.
Full race results