Indianapolis If Jimmie Johnson wants to capture his first Nextel Cup championship, winning at Indianapolis Motor Speedway was a step in the right direction.
Johnson pulled off a gritty victory at the Brickyard on Sunday, battling back from an early tire problem to take the lead, only to see it evaporate when a late debris caution bunched up the field. It dropped him from first to eighth and forced him to slice his way to the front in the final 14 laps.
But he did it with ease and pulled away for his third major victory of the season. Johnson won the season-opening Daytona 500 - the only event that trumps Indianapolis in prestige - and also triumphed in NASCAR's All-Star race.
"Pucker up and get ready to kiss those bricks!" Johnson said in Victory Lane.
Matt Kenseth, who has been sitting in second behind Johnson in the points race the past nine weeks, finished second and is 107 points out of the lead. Kevin Harvick was third, and Clint Bowyer, his rookie teammate at Richard Childress Racing, was fourth.
Mark Martin was fifth, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. stole a sixth-place finish by not pitting on the final caution to salvage a horrible day and reclaim the 10th spot in the Chase for the championship standings.
Kyle Busch was seventh, followed by Stewart, Carl Edwards and Kurt Busch. Jeff Burton, who started from the pole and led a race-high 87 laps, finished a disappointing 12th after fading late.
Jeff Gordon, looking to race his way into the record books, never got the chance. He broke the sway bar on his Chevrolet eight laps into the race and had to stop to have the part replaced. The repair work dropped him three laps off the pace, and he wound up 16th.
The poor day prevented him from tying two distinguished marks - joining Formula One superstar Michael Schumacher as the only five-time winners in Indy history, and the late Dale Earnhardt's mark of 76 Cup wins.