SPEEDWAY, Ind. -- Leave it to Jimmie Johnson to get a head start on the competition. The five-time Sprint Cup Series champion and aspiring triathlete was awake at 5:30 Saturday morning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, shaking off the cobwebs in preparation for a 10-mile run.
Of course, seeing Johnson ahead of the pack is nothing new at the Brickyard, where he simply destroyed the field last season en route to a fourth victory that tied him for most wins ever on Indy's oval track. Runner-up Kyle Busch said after the race that Johnson wasn't in his own ZIP code, he was in his own country. Now he's back at the 104-year-old track in search of a fifth victory that would knot him with former Formula One driver Michael Schumacher, whose five wins on the track's road course are a record for the facility.
And yet, there's a noticeable difference between Johnson's winning effort last season and his preparations for Sunday's event -- the No. 48 car is without the skew in the rear end that helped give it such an advantage here and soon had every other contending team in the garage scrambling to follow suit. It was Indianapolis where other drivers first began to notice the yawed-out setup on Johnson's vehicle, a rear suspension trick that helped the car better navigate the corner and somehow stayed within the rule book at the same time.
Within weeks, everybody was trying the same thing, and the skew emerged as a defining setup tactic of the 2012 season. But no more -- the redesigned Generation-6 car unveiled for this year eliminates that approach, forcing Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus to search for another way to gain an edge on the field at Indianapolis and everywhere else.
"The tools we have to work with on the car that we had last year, we don't have this year," Johnson said Saturday. "We're working in different areas. Honestly, NASCAR's taken away so much, it's really small adjustments that we're working on and make a difference with the car. You start stacking those small adjustments to find the tenth or tenth and a half (of a second), where last year we got on the skew thing and were really able to make it work here. They've eliminated so many areas to work in now, it's really hard to find a chunk of speed."
Indianapolis is tricky enough as it is, given that the differences in the four corners are much greater than they appear, and tire wear makes it hard to figure out which adjustments are working -- reasons why even Johnson took so long to find his footing here. The No. 48 team was working on the skew concept last year well before it arrived at the Brickyard, tweaking the rear sway bar and using the bushings in the truck arms to help the car move through the corner.
At some places, it didn't work. But it all clicked at Indy, a relatively smooth track with even transitions through the corners. The result was a race where Johnson led 99 of 160 laps, and won by nearly 5 seconds.
"From the first lap on the track, it was like, 'Whoa. This is going to be good,'" Johnson remembered. "From there we were able to continue to work with it and make it better."
Although he had the best 10-lap average in opening practice at Indianapolis, Johnson said Saturday morning that he didn't yet have a winning car. Of course, that hardly deters many others from pointing to Five-Time as the favorite for a fifth victory here, particularly given how Indianapolis favors drivers in championship form. All but four of the previous 19 NASCAR races at the Brickyard have been won by a driver with a title to their names, and Johnson currently holds a 56-point lead -- the largest ever after 19 races under the current format -- on the field.
"They bring their best because this is such a prestigious race. That's why I think you see champions or championship contenders compete so well at this race, and win this race. Those are the teams that are able to step up when it matters most and not only win this race, but go on to be a champion. And who has done that better in the last 10 years than the 48 team?" asked Jeff Gordon, also a four-time winner of the race.
"They will be very tough this weekend. This race means a lot to them, like it does to so many others. They certainly are in championship form, and I'd have to put them at the top of the list of teams to beat. For the rest of us, we're going to put all that aside and run our race to see if we can finish ahead of the 48. If you can do that, you're probably going to win this race and be proud of that accomplishment. I hope there were teams that felt that way when we were winning here. But I think they might be taking it to another level."
That was certainly the case Saturday afternoon, when Johnson secured the second-place starting position for Sunday's event, holding the provisional pole until Ryan Newman knocked him off on the last run of the day. There may not be any more skew in the No. 48 car, but clearly Knaus and Johnson have some other speed tactics in the works. ?
"That's been the project all year," Johnson said. "It's hard to take away a sensation that a driver feels, and certainly the knowledge of what that does to the car, and the balance that the car has and the speed that coms from it. We've been working on that magic all year trying to fund it. At times we've had lots of speed and hit it right. Race-trim wise here, we've been kind of average, and we noticed we had a lot more speed in qualifying trim than in race trim. So we've been trying to blend those two setups together and see what we get there."
The immediate result was a spot on the front row that extends the momentum Johnson built here last year, when he won at Indianapolis for the third time in five years. Even more so than the restrictor-plate Daytona 500, this is a place that demands a perfect combination of team ability and driver skill.
"In my heart," Johnson said, "I feel like I need to come here and win."
And as for that 10-mile run? Johnson scrapped it when he looked out the window of his motor home and saw it was raining, choosing instead to sip some coffee and watch "Dora the Explorer" episodes with daughter Genevieve. Evidently, there is hope for the competition after all.
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