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.