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Indianapolis Motor Speedway is one of the most famous tracks in motorsports. Its rich history and racing tradition make it a “must win” for drivers. Long known for hosting open-wheel races, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series began traveling to the famed track in 1994. Five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson made his debut there as a rookie in 2002 and he finished ninth.
Johnson often notes the thrill he got pulling out from the garage onto Gasoline Alley for the first time after a growing up in Southern California watching his idol, four-time Indianapolis 500 winner Rick Mears and other greats race at the 2.5-mile track. He is now in the Brickyard history books, himself, as a four-time Brickyard 400 winner. It is an honor he shares with the sport’s greats, including A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, his open-wheel hero Mears, and his Sprint Cup teammate Jeff Gordon. Only Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher has more wins at Indianapolis with five in the United States Grand Prix.
To say it’s been an easy accomplishment would not exactly be true. Johnson notes while he typically prefers “quirky shaped” racetracks like Indy, it took him a while to find his way around its four fairly flat corners. Johnson has had more of a feast-or-famine type of relationship when it comes to his finishes there. While he has four victories, he has only one other top-10 in the seven other races he has run there and hasn’t finished better than 18th in those remaining races.
However, four wins and a place in the history books alongside some of racing’s biggest names certainly helps when it comes to making up for his less-than-desirable performances. A win in Sunday’s 20th Brickyard 400 puts Johnson ahead of Foyt, Unser, Mears and Gordon, and ties him with Schumacher. All he has to do is cross the yard of bricks first and history will be written once again.
Based on your early record it looks like it maybe took a few years to figure out how to get around Indy. Do you agree?
“It took me quite a while to figure out the track. But I feel tracks that are unique and quirky – one-of-a-kind tracks – I seem to adapt well to them. Those are tracks like Martinsville, Dover, Darlington, and the Brickyard. There isn’t a track out there like those. In my opinion, once you figure out how to drive those quirky tracks, you’ve got something that doesn’t change. It always takes that line and that rhythm to get it right. And, when I show up at the racetrack, I stay very focused on that particular driving style. We adjust the car to it and it pays off. So for me, it’s just finding that line and then, once I’ve got it, I seem to own it. At the Brickyard, I found it on my own. I found it through a lot of frustrating test sessions, races, a few crashed cars, and then it finally clicked. I don’t remember the exact moment – I do at Martinsville, but I don’t at Indy. It was just one weekend we came back and the light went off in my mind and I’m like, ‘That’s how!’ And then we won. That was our first win.”
How do you think the Gen-6 car will be at Indy?
“This year, I think the tire choice will dictate the speed. I’m not sure what tire we’re going to take there. I know we had a tire test and there was a version that was blistering fast. I’m not sure we’re going back with that but, in general, when you look at the Gen-6 car, it has more downforce and it’s lighter. And where those benefits will show up will be on the flatter racetracks. And we all know that the Brickyard has four very flat turns. So, the performance of the Gen-6 over the Gen-5 will be higher there than pretty much anywhere we go, I think. On a banked track, there is less of an advantage. The flatter the track, the more the Gen-6 car will shine.”