With Jimmie Johnson winning his fourth Brickyard 400 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. taking over the points lead for the first time in eight years, it was indeed a great day for Hendrick Motorsports on Sunday.
Johnson put on a clinic in the 400-mile race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, leading 99 of 160 laps and crossing the finish line almost five seconds ahead of his closest competitor, Kyle Busch. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion had one of his most dominant performances in his already illustrious career.
Winning the Brickyard 400 for the fourth time allowed Johnson to etch his name among the greats at this historic 2.5-mile racetrack. He is now tied with teammate Jeff Gordon for most Sprint Cup victories there. A.J. Foyt, Rick Mears and Al Unser share the record with four Indianapolis 500 wins. Formula One legend Michael Schumacher holds the track record with five victories. Schumacher claimed all of them in the United States Grand Prix, which were contested on the track's road course.
"This fourth, I'm able to join racing legends, my heroes, people I've looked up to my entire life, so to join them is a huge, huge honor," Johnson said. "I know how much it means to Rick, and I'm thankful for all of his support and everybody at Hendrick Motorsports and thankful to (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) and my guys."
Johnson considers Mears as his childhood hero.
While Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team kissed the bricks once again at Indianapolis, Earnhardt's fourth-place finish was good enough to place him atop the point standings for the first time since Sept. 19, 2004 at New Hampshire.
Matt Kenseth came to Indianapolis with the points lead, but after crashing late in the race, Kenseth finished 35th and fell 14 points behind Earnhardt Jr.
Rick Hendrick had three of his four teams finish in the top-five. Gordon placed fifth, while Kasey Kahne, coming off a win two weeks ago at New Hampshire, finished 12th.
Since NASCAR's premier series made its debut at Indianapolis in 1994, Hendrick has recorded eight car owner victories there, which is five more than any other owner.
"Every time you come here you know how important this place is, and everybody wants to win here because just the unique history of this place and how many legends in racing have raced here," Hendrick said. "So everybody puts a lot of effort into it."
HMS has been on a roll lately, with its teams winning six of the last 10 races. Hendrick claimed his 199th Cup victory as an owner in Oct. 2011 and remained at that number for 17 races until Johnson delivered the racing organization its long-awaited 200th win on May 12 at Darlington.
With Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. virtually assured of making the 12-driver field for this year's Chase for the Sprint Cup, Hendrick could be in line for his record-extending 11th owner's championship.
"I think we don't look at Indianapolis as let's just put all our effort into Indianapolis because they all pay the same points; although, you want to win these special events, but to win a championship, you've got to be good everywhere," Hendrick said. "Every track is important. We do run well here (at Indianapolis), and we've been able to win eight of these things. But when we come back next year, it's going to be a brand new ballgame."
If history repeats itself, Hendrick will collect another title. When Johnson won the Brickyard 400 in 2006, '08 and '09, he claimed the series championship those years as well.
Johnson has a good shot of earning the first seed in the Chase. With six races remaining in the regular season, he has three wins and sits fourth in the standings (27 points behind Earnhardt Jr.). Tony Stewart, the defending series champion, and Brad Keselowski also have three victories each, but Stewart is eighth in points, one spot ahead of Keselowski.
"I feel that from a performance standpoint, we're as strong as we've ever been," Johnson said. "We've had issues late in a race that's cost us track position for a variety of reasons, and that's the part that we need to make sure is buttoned up before the Chase starts and carry that through the Chase...I feel really good about the Chase, and I'm ready for it to start."
Earnhardt Jr. has nine top-five finishes and 15 top-10s in the first 20 races this season. Last month, NASCAR's most-popular driver snapped a four-year winless streak at Michigan.
"All season long we've been working hard and finishing well," Earnhardt Jr. said. "That is symbolic of how well we've done. I'm proud of that. I have felt that way about our position in points all season long. We need to win more races. If we want to win the championship, we have to. I imagine we can win a couple races in the Chase. I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We'll just have to see."
The series heads to Pocono this coming weekend and then travels to Watkins Glen, Michigan, Bristol and Atlanta before the regular season concludes on Sept. 8 at Richmond.