Johnson Wins at Indy, Dale Jr. Sixth
Big Bud Gamble Pays Off
Jimmie Johnson won Sunday's Allstate 400 at the Brickyard, his first victory at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson solidified his lead in the Nextel Cup point standings, but second-place points man Matt Kenseth stayed close by finishing second in the race. Kevin Harvick finished third. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 8 Budweiser team struggled for much of the very hot, sunny afternoon, but took a gamble on lap 144 (of 160 laps) by opting not to make a pit stop. Running 28th at the time, the decision launched Dale Jr. into second place for the restart on lap 146. The red Bud number 8 car eventually took the lead on lap 150 in turn two, passing Kyle Busch, before being passed by Johnson before the start/finish line. Johnson would lead the final 10 laps for the win, while Dale Jr. would turn his fastest laps of the race on aging tires, holding on to finish sixth. It is a career-best finish for Dale Jr. at the 2.5-mile low-banked rectangular IMS, and his second top-10 in seven starts here. The finish moves Dale Jr. into 10th place in Nextel Cup points, only 26 points out of seventh position. The team has been in the top-10 following 19 of 21 races this season with five events remaining before the Chase for the Cup begins.
Key Moments: Dale Jr., starting 31st, looked like a contender in the very early stages, climbing to 24th by the second lap, and then into the top-20 by the seventh lap. The forward progress slowed and then reversed after two pit stops in the first 40 laps as the No. 8 car suffered from increasingly poor handling. Struggling to get the car to rotate and turn through each corner, the crew made major changes on nearly every pit stop, including a lengthy stop on lap 87 that dropped Dale Jr. to 37th place at the restart. The team made their final stop on lap 123, and improved the car enough to run lap times comparable with the leaders despite being mired deep in the field. The moment of the race came on lap 143 when Dale Jr. and crew chief Tony Eury Jr. agreed to stay on the track while the vast majority of the field made another stop. The strategy paid off, as Dale Jr. restarted in second place on lap 146, and then managed to hold off much quicker cars to finish sixth.
Dale Jr. Quotes:
"We stole one there! I'd like it for our fans if we'd have a lot more comfortable sixth-place finish. We had a 30th-place car, we were terrible. But, we had a lot of communication there near the end of the race, and we all agreed we'd take a gamble and stay out. The car was actually better then than it was all day, and once we got into clean air near the front, we were able to get away from the guys that stopped for tires. My team was really pumping me up on the radio and letting me know who was behind us and what kind of gap we had and I just drove as hard as I could. This is really good for us. We've had some really bad luck here at Indy in the past, so maybe this evens it out a little bit."
"It's good to be back into the top-10 (in points). I have a great team and a great bunch of guys, so they deserve to be in there (the top-10) and not have to answer all those questions about being outside of the Chase. We've been solid most the year, but we had two rough weekends and dropped back. We know we need to build better cars. Faster cars. This one was pretty bad the way we ran, but we stuck together and hung in there and that means a lot."
Tony Eury Jr. (crew chief) quotes: "I knew what happened here last year with a caution flag with about 10 laps to go. The guys that came in and got tires weren't able to move up that much and this track has always been that way. It's just tough to pass. We had nothing to lose (when the yellow flag flew on lap 143), so I told Dale Jr. if he wanted to be gutsy, he could stay out and we'd go for it. We saw everyone else coming in and we figured a bunch of them would take only two tires, so he stayed out. It worked out exactly how we wanted: we didn't think we had a winning car, but we figured we could hang on for at least a top-10. And, our driver got up on the wheel and did his job. He did great those last laps to get all he could."
"This is good for the team. It really gets the boys pumped up. We had a rough two weeks (two consecutive 43rd-place finishes), but we were a fifth-place car when we blew up at New Hampshire and we were in the top-15 until we wrecked at Pocono. We feel like we'll be real strong at all of the tracks coming up to the Chase. We're confident we'll be good at all of 'em."
Best Radio Chatter:
Dale Jr.'s personal aircraft is in for maintenance, so he was scheduled to fly home after the race with Elliott Sadler. Unfortunately, Sadler was the first out of the race in a lap three crash. After finding out his buddy Elliott was OK, Junior's thoughts turned to his travel plans.
Dale Jr: "Damn, I gotta find another ride..."
Steve Hmiel (spotter): "We've got connections. We'll get ya home... Killer's (Junior's dog) gotta ride for ya!"
Dale Jr: "Yeah, but I gotta get home before the beer gets hot..."
(Postscript: Elliott stayed until the finish of the race so Junior could get home in a timely manner to enjoy a cold Bud or two before the night is over...)
Struggling with an ill-handling car, there wasn't much chatter on the radio waves until late in the race. When the yellow-flag flew on lap 141 while running 28th, the decision of the day was at hand...
Dale Jr: "The car was better there. It was too loose at the start of the run, then it got good. We've got a short run (to the finish) here..."
Tony Jr: "Everybody's gonna take two (tires) here. If you wanna be ballsy - you could stay out. I say we be ballsy here. You were as quick as the leaders on that run. If you drive it like you were there - and you get a good start and get a gap - you'll be good... (watching down pit lane as nearly the entire field came into the pits).. STAY OUT! STAY OUT!"
Suddenly, the Bud car was in second place.
Tony Jr: "Last year, the top-eight stopped late and no one was able to make up any spots with 10 to go. We're gonna have about 14 laps to go here. So get a good start and we'll count 'em down for ya. Do what you can do."
Dale Jr: "I'll do the best I can. Don't worry about me."
Tony Jr. counted down each lap, and gave the distance back to the cars behind. After the finish of the race...
Dale Jr.: "Guys, we turned a 30th into 6th. (to Tony Jr.) Thanks man, thanks for keeping me pumped up out there. We had real good communication there with 15 to go... when y'all pray tonight, thank the lord because we stole one there!"