Commentary

JJ chasing history at the Brickyard

Updated: July 25, 2010, 11:54 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Reggie Jackson was Mr. October. Terry Bradshaw won four Super Bowls. Michael Jordan won six NBA titles, including two separate three-peats.

The best are at their best when it counts the most. And Jimmie Johnson is one of them.

The hallowed ground of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a place where a few drivers became legends, is where Johnson polishes his place in history.

A victory Sunday in the Brickyard 400 would make Johnson the first to win the prestigious event for three consecutive years. It also would be his fourth victory at Indy in five years.

Through a century of Indy-car racing here, no man has won three consecutive Indy 500s. Only Formula One great Michael Schumacher can claim a better streak, winning four consecutive U.S. Grand Prix events from 2003 to 2006.

Jimmie Johnson
Todd Warshaw/NASCAR/Getty ImagesA familiar sight at Indianapolis Motor Speedway: Jimmie Johnson leading the pack.

"Three in a row will be awesome," Johnson said, speaking like it's a done deal. "I forgot about it until we got here. I've been so busy with the baby and [wife] Chani."

Nothing compares to becoming a father, which happened for Johnson on July 7 when daughter Genevieve Marie entered the world.

Now it's back to business and a chance at one of racing's most cherished achievements -- Indy immortality. Johnson starts on the front row Sunday next to pole-winner Juan Pablo Montoya.

"This is one of the top two or three races we want to win each year," Johnson said. "The prestige of the event far outweighs the points. And where we are in the points right now [third with five victories], we're comfortable and looking for a home run."

A home run as in going for broke on winning this race without fear of how a bad result could hurt the No. 48 Chevy team in the standings.

Not that points concerns ever slowed down Johnson here. By his own admission, he pressed too hard for a long time on the 2.5-mile rectangle.

"This track has been feast or famine for us," Johnson said. "It's so different from anywhere else we race. It's a demanding track mentally to get it right in each corner."

Johnson couldn't figure it out for years. But he has figured it out, a hint into why the man is a four-time Cup champion.

"Now I understand the rhythm of it," Johnson said. "Once I did, a light went on in my head and it was like, 'Man, I've been doing this wrong for so long.'"

And what was he doing wrong?

"I was attacking Turns 1 and 3 and easing through Turns 2 and 4," Johnson said. "Now I've switched it around.

"With these flat and tight corners, it's easy to overdrive the entry [in Turns 1 and 3]. I was driving in too deep and trying to use too much brake. But in Turns 2 and 4 you have to attack those corners because it leads you to the long straightaways. That's where your time is made."

Not an exciting explanation, but a technical answer from a studious driver.

Jacques Villeneuve, a former Indy 500 winner and F1 champion who is racing in his first Brickyard 400, has noticed Johnson's modus operandi.

"He's a great driver because he seems to always focus on the work at hand," Villeneuve said. "If there's something where he isn't as good, he works on it and gets better. That's why he probably could be competent in any form of racing."

Which brings up another Indy objective for Johnson: He wants to race in the Indy 500.

"I've been trying hard for years," Johnson said of his Indy 500 desires. "There are a few hurdles to get over. The most recent hurdle is that I'm a father now. My wife said you can only race the [Indy] 500 if we don't have a kid, so I still have to win Mom over.

"There also are scheduling and manufacturing issues. Even if they let me do it, you take a big risk of getting injured. But I'm all for it. I'd come do it. I love that race and want to be a part of it."

For now, Johnson wants to join his teammate Jeff Gordon as the only men to win the Brickyard 400 four times.

Gordon hasn't won a race this season, but he ranks second in the season standings. He made a bold prediction Friday.

"All we have to do is win this race and all of a sudden we'll be the favorites to win the championship," Gordon said. "Based on where we are in the points, it's that big of a win. That's how big the weekend is for us."

Johnson would start on top if the Chase began today, based on his series-leading five victories. He was a little surprised by Gordon's statement. How can anyone be the title favorite other than the man who has won the past four championships?

"We'll have to see," Johnson said. "But [winning] this race does send a big message in the industry."

Gordon means no disrespect to Johnson, the man he told team owner Rick Hendrick to bring to Cup.

"You can't say enough about Jimmie's performance here," Gordon said. "When you know you're coming to a big event, you've got to keep your eye [on Johnson and the No. 48 team] because they know how to rise to the occasion.

"The guy's been extremely impressive. This is a racetrack where he's worked hard to improve, and it's paid dividends."

The Hendrick duo account for seven victories in the 16 Cup races at Indy. Joe Gibbs Racing has three and Denny Hamlin hopes to make it four on Sunday. It would give Hamlin six victories to Johnson's five this year, and in Hamlin's eyes, send a message to the Hendrick boys.

"It's meaningful," Hamlin said. "If we could come here and beat those guys it would be a big moral boost for us and a big shot in the gut for them."

Johnson's biggest competition Sunday could be Montoya, who would have won the Brickyard 400 last year if not for a speeding penalty on pit road late in the race.

Johnson knows as well as anyone that crazy things happen at Indy. That's why he respects what it takes to win at the Brickyard even more than the Daytona 500.

"When you win the race here, you've earned it," Johnson said. "The Daytona 500 is an amazing event, but there are circumstances there out of the driver's control that can lead to you winning the race. Somebody is giving you a push [in the draft] or not pushing in a certain situation.

"That doesn't happen here. If you win here, you've earned every inch of those 400 miles and put yourself in position to win."

Johnson now can put himself in position to rank with the Indy legends. The best at his best when it counts. It's what Johnson is all about.

Terry Blount is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Blount can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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