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Ben Smith

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Johnson flawless at Brickyard

– So go on, then, Mr. Dale Earnhardt Jr. Fan. If you don’t do it, a whole pile of others are going to.

Stand there in the bleachers in your camo 88 cap and watch Jimmie Johnson come howling across the yard of brick one last time. Turn to the guy next to you, palms toward the sky. Shrug. Shoot him the universal “Hey, what are you gonna do?” look and then nod and, slowly, begin to clap.

This is what Jimmie Johnson does to a day, when he’s got it hooked up: He turns even so momentous a place as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway into Shrug City. The man can be so good and his team so utterly flawless they vacuum all the drama out of the thing, and not even history can fully wake it up.

And so here J.J. came to the finish of the Brickyard 400 on Sunday with the checkers fluttering for him for the fourth time at Indy, and the reception, initially, was muted.

They would rise and howl later – “I really enjoyed the lap around in the race car; the fans were going nuts,” Johnson said – but for the moment, a handful of flash-drives twinkled in the shadows, Dale Jr. Cap shrugged, and the vibe was a whole lot less “woo-hoo!” than “whoa.”

You lead 99 laps out of 160 and beat the field by almost five seconds, that’ll happen. Everyone will be at a loss to explain how it, well, happened.

“Jimmie Johnson was just in his own country today,” said an awed Kyle Busch, who, as the second-place finisher, starred as the dwindling dot in Johnson’s rearview mirror.

“It didn’t really matter if you were in front of him or not, he was going to pass you in about four or five laps anyway,” concurred Greg Biffle, who finished a distant third.

And Johnson himself?

“The way I saw it, the 11 (Denny Hamlin) had great pace at start of the race,” he said. “I don’t know what happened to him. I didn’t see him the rest of the day. The 2 (Brad Keselowski), because of the (pit) sequence deal, he held me off and Jeff (Gordon) off for a long time.

“At the end, I think our strength looked like more than it was the 24 (Gordon) and 2 weren’t around. I think either one of them had been up with us and had track position at the end, we’d have had a heck of a race on our hands.”

But, of course, the 24 and 2 weren’t around. Hamlin slid up the track on a restart, lost 13 places and never got it back. Keselowski, who looked like he might have the track position deal figured out by pitting off-cycle, spun his tires on another restart, dropped from first to seventh, and then a series of yellows blew up his strategy.

Stuff happened, in other words. It just didn’t happen to Johnson.

He took the lead for the last time on lap 132, and after that it was the usual Macy’s parade, minus the giant inflatable Stewie Griffin. No one came close to him again, and he won the way his childhood hero Rick Mears used to win here: with a quiet, bottomless competence that inspires awe but doesn’t exactly set the pulse to galloping.

And yet, listen, only five other men, in 103 years, have done what Johnson did Sunday in front of another regrettably sparse turnout, and every one of their names rings to the touch. And so respect must be paid, even if you won’t need a cardiologist to help do it.

You sure didn’t Sunday, when the outcome was as black-and-white as Johnson’s No. 48 ride. And you might not down the road, either.

“From a performance standpoint, we’re as strong as we’ve ever been,” Johnson said.

Sounded ominously like a warning.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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