Ryan Newman had looked impressive enough on Saturday when he was the last man out in qualifying and duly stole pole position from Jimmie Johnson, who'd set his own benchmark time 90 minutes earlier. It took a new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series track record to do it, but Newman - born not far away from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in South Bend, Indiana, 35 and a half years ago - had clinched a dream prize.
All he had to do now was to upscale it to an even bigger one - victory in the Brickyard 400 itself. He put his best foot forward right from the start, taking control of the race over the first stint. He led Jimmie Johnson by an impressive margin over the first 30 laps until the #39 finally came in for the first round of green flag pit stops which gave Johnson the opportunity to steal in front for the next run. So impressive was Johnson's pace in the clear air of the lead that already - even before a quarter race distance - the idea that anyone could stop him from claiming victory this afternoon was already feeling faintly absurd.
It looked as though the next round of stops would be under green and cars started making for pit lane until finally the first caution of the afternoon came out on lap 59 for Timmy Hill's car crawling around the track with a technical issue. That allowed everyone a slightly more leisurely pit stop and tune-up under the four-lap yellow, before the racing resumed on lap 64 with Johnson in the lead.
The halfway point of the race coincided with the second caution of the afternoon - this time the culprit was Jeff Burton with a rear gear issue in the #31 car. This time not everyone followed the plan of pitting, and the top four stayed out: Brad Keselowski took point ahead of Penske team mate Joey Logano and Hendrick duo Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr., with the caution proving a Godsend in particular for Earnhardt who had been forced off-sync early in the race by a loose wheel causing him to pit on lap 13.
Behind the stay-out quartet, Carl Edwards had managed to get off pit road ahead narrowly ahead of Jimmie Johnson and the Joe Gibbs Racing pair of Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch - the latter fresh from his Nationwide win at the track 24 hours previously. Inevitably though it was the #48 of Jimmie Johnson that surged into life soon after the restart on lap 86, and the five-time Cup champion was well poised to retake the lead on lap 98 once the Penske pair came in for their deferred visit to pit road.
As the race passed into double digits, Johnson's lead over Newman was over a second, and Newman's team mate and car owner Tony Stewart had joined the pair at the sharp end ahead of Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth and Kurt and Kyle Busch, with Juan Pablo Montoya enjoying his return to a happy hunting ground from years past in eighth place.
Johnson was forced to pit slightly earlier than planned on lap 108 when he picked up some debris on the front grille and grew concerned about overheating, but there was no crisis and everyone bar Jamie McMurray and Denny Hamlin has completed their latest round of stops by the time the third caution came out on lap 115, the second to be triggered by Timmy Hill's #32 being too slow on track. McMurray and Hamlin duly pitted under the caution, but they were not alone and among those playing a strategy card at this juncture were Gordon, Keselowski, both Busch brothers, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard and Richard Petty Motorsports team mates Aric Almirola and Marcos Ambrose.
Johnson and Logano were not among those tempted to come in and they duly led the field to the green flag ahead of Earnhardt, Newman, Stewart and Kahne on lap 119; but once the race got down to under 30 to go, the window was open for the final stop of the day and Johnson was in from the lead on lap 134; but for once the slick #48 crew on pit road stumbled, and the stop was by far the slowest of the afternoon for Johnson.
Ryan Newman immediately capitalised on that opening and after his own stop he held a big seven second advantage over Johnson after taking two tyres only where Johnson had opted for four. Until the rest of the field came onto pit road, both men were bumping along at the bottom of the top ten with several of those who had played the off-sync strategy card ahead of them - Hamlin, Harvick, Menard, Bowyer, Keselowki and Gordon forming the top six. They all had to stop again, and in the meantime fresher tyres were already allowing Newman to make inroads into them - and at the same time also enabling Johnson to tear into the gap between him and the #39 with alarming alacrity.