INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson won his fourth Brickyard 400 and solidified his status as a title favorite in NASCAR.
Impressive? You bet.
Surprising? Not really.
But how about this: Dale Earnhardt Jr. left the Indianapolis Motor Speedway with the Sprint Cup Series points lead.
Earnhardt finished fourth on Sunday, his best career finish at a track where he often struggles. Earnhardt took a 14-point lead over previous points leader Matt Kenseth, who got caught in a crash. It was another sign of Earnhardt’s new consistency, the kind of development that could turn the streaky driver with a famous last name into a real championship contender.
“That is symbolic of how well we’ve done,” Earnhardt said. “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 Chase. I don’t know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it. We’ll just have to see. We’d like to step it up just a little bit more.”
And if it comes down to Hendrick Motorsports teammates Johnson and Earnhardt duking it out for the title at the end of the season, both drivers say bring it on.
“We would actually rather us two to fight for the championship at the end knowing one of us is going to get it for the company,” Earnhardt said. “If I could line that up right now, I would. That is how I’d have it.”
Johnson said team owner Rick Hendrick has formed such a strong organization that having multiple teams racing for the championship doesn’t cause any drama between the drivers or crews.
“It’s great,” Johnson said. “What it does especially for our company, it far exceeds any type of competitive spirit that exists. And from a technical standpoint, we all go to the racetrack with the same equipment. No one gets favorites.”
Hendrick has been through it before, and doesn’t expect any issues.
“And these guys are sharing so much information, and I’m beyond that nervousness trying to get the teams together and say, ‘Look, what got us here is working together and sharing information,'” Hendrick said. “I think by having those two cars where they are in the points will make us, give us a better shot. … A lot of organizations, it tears them down when they have that kind of competition. I think it makes us stronger.”
All four Hendrick Motorsports teams share technical information, but Hendrick has divided them into pairs. Johnson’s No. 48 team and Earnhardt’s No. 88 team work together in one shop, while Jeff Gordon’s No. 24 team and Kasey Kahne’s No. 5 team work in another.
Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus hailed the developing chemistry of Earnhardt and his crew chief, Steve Letarte.
“Stevie and Junior have really brought a lot to the table,” Johnson said. “I have to say, from Pocono to now, the stuff that Junior has liked in the car and what he’s felt has opened up doors for us to pursue and a road for us to go down where we’ve made our stuff better. There’s a lot of confidence in our shop with both teams, and the communication is as good as it’s ever been.”
And while Johnson and Knaus have won five championships, Johnson said they can learn from Earnhardt and Letarte.
“I’m happy to see Steve as confident as he is and Junior both because we can really lean on them and pull from them, and it’s a two way street,” Johnson said. “That’s something that’s new this year, and I’m proud of both of them for where they’re at and where our whole team is.”
Still, Hendrick cautioned everybody against overconfidence.
“You can’t put any more effort in than we do here,” Hendrick said. “But I’ll tell you, when you start believing that you’ve got it figured out is when you’ll get your butt handed to you.”