INDIANAPOLIS -- Jimmie Johnson remembers it being hot. He can't recall if they had air conditioning or not back at the house in El Cajon, Calif., but when the Indianapolis 500 was on, none of that mattered. It was the only race a young Johnson would watch in its entirety, sometimes on the couch with his dad and grandfather, sometimes sitting inside a little tunnel made of sofa cushions pretending he was a race-car driver while the real thing was unfolding on television.
He remembers Danny Sullivan's spin and win; Tom Sneva's crash during the pace laps; Rick Mears' fire on the frontstretch. Johnson was just a fan, really -- someone who went to tracks like the old Riverside International Raceway to watch, clinging onto the fence and staring almost awestruck at his idols beyond. Through it all there was always the pull of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, akin to a promised land for a kid who raced dirt bikes but had dreams of bigger things. Who knew that when he finally made it there, it would be in a vehicle different from what he had envisioned. And he would become one of the best the Brickyard had ever seen.
That much was cemented Sunday, when Johnson led 99 laps and dominated NASCAR's annual trip to the big speedway at the corner of 16th and Georgetown, recording a triumph that overflowed with significance like the magnum of champagne he sprayed in Victory Lane. His third win of the season was a shot across the bow of his competitors for the Sprint Cup championship, given that it put Johnson in position to be the top seed in a Chase which begins in seven weeks. It was the kind of commanding effort that brought back memories of his five-year title run. And it knotted him with four other drivers for most victories ever on the Brickyard's oval -- his former hero and mentor among them.
Johnson, on Sunday, joined an exclusive club that also includes four-time Indianapolis winners Al Unser, A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Jeff Gordon. It's almost as if Johnson were destined to be there, given his strong connections to the latter two men on that list -- the first of whom inspired him and the second of which gave him his big chance at NASCAR's top level. The kid from El Cajon grew up a Mears fan, because the open-wheel star had come from off-road racing similar to the type a younger Johnson was pursuing. And it was Gordon who convinced car owner Rick Hendrick to bring this little-known driver aboard, who helped convince eventual sponsor Lowe's that great things were possible, who set loose a beast that has since changed the face of his sport.
"This fourth [victory], I'm able to join racing legends, my heroes, people I've looked up to my entire life," Johnson said. "So, to join them is a huge, huge honor."
The achievement seems almost destined, given his connections to those who came before. Johnson was a race fan first and foremost, and he got his start in dirt bikes when his father went to work in his grandfather's motorcycle shop. He idolized Mears because the Bakersfield, Calif., native had started out on dirt -- just what Johnson was competing on -- and it gave him hope that one day he also might be able to race open-wheel cars on asphalt at a place like Indianapolis. He doesn't think he ever saw Mears race live, but he still made the rounds, watching his eventual car owner Hendrick wheel a vehicle at Riverside and watching Bobby Rahal dust the field in an IMSA event at Del Mar.
Eventually Johnson's father went to work in off-road trucks, where Mears' brother Roger competed, and Jimmie struck up a friendship with Roger Mears' son Casey. Suddenly, he had a direct connection to the driver he had idolized for all those years. "There are only a few kids in the pits, so Casey and I are there on our little BMX bikes and riding around," Johnson remembered. "So I just kind of gravitated toward the Mears gang."
Johnson said he's spent some time with Rick Mears, who now lives in North Carolina, but despite their shared Brickyard successes the two don't communicate that often. That's not the case with Gordon, his teammate at Hendrick Motorsports, who spotted Johnson when he was a relatively obscure driver on what is now the Nationwide tour. Hendrick was expanding its facility, and Gordon thought the presence of another team might benefit his No. 24 squad, and the four-time champion had been impressed by a certain young driver he saw taking a great line around Darlington in a test earlier in the year -- and the rest was history.
"I knew he was special and talented," said Gordon, who was a contender for much of Sunday before finishing fifth. "The type of equipment he was in was not the best equipment out there. It was good equipment, but not the best. I knew if you took a guy who had worked that hard and has raced that long with his talents, and put him with a good team, that he'd be able to do something special. I had no idea he was going to do what he has done, that's way beyond any of our imagination, including his. He's a great guy and a great driver. He has a great team. They deserve it."
They certainly did Sunday, when Johnson and his No. 48 car were almost untouchable for long portions of the race, streaking to a lead of several seconds with every green-flag run. It was vintage Jimmie: the kind of performance that made his opponents shake their heads in frustration, reviving memories of 2008 and 2009.
"We were probably in our own ZIP code on the rest of the field," runner-up Kyle Busch said, "but Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today." And, by the way, the first three times that Johnson won at the Brickyard, he also went on to claim the Cup championship.
That certainly seems a realistic prospect now. Given his higher standing in the points, he has the edge for the top Chase seed over Tony Stewart and Brad Keselowski, who also have three wins on the season but are staring up at driver No. 48 in the standings. It's one thing to win, and another to win in the convincing way Johnson did at Indianapolis, and even another to take the checkered flag and tell everyone you're ready to claim an even bigger prize. After the race, Johnson was asked by a television interviewer if he was in championship form. "I am," he answered, without hesitation. "I wish the Chase would start right now." The last time Johnson showed that much swagger, he was collecting Sprint Cups by the armful.
But that time is still a few weeks away. Sunday was all about Indianapolis, the place Johnson was once so riveted to on television, and this unassuming Southern Californian earning his rightful place among the best ever to compete there. It started on the couch, with dad and granddad, and that tunnel of cushions he pretended was a car. It culminated on a glorious afternoon at the world's most famous race track, and Johnson kneeling down to kiss the yard of bricks for a fourth time.
"I just grew up in a family full of race fans. And I'm the first racer of the group," Johnson said. "It's amazing just from being a fan, chasing autographs, holding on to the fence looking in, now I'm on the inside doing what I'm doing on the track. It's been a wild experience."