There are several famous yards in sports. “The Tackle” from Super Bowl XXXIV between the Tennessee Titans and St. Louis Rams will be remembered for linebacker Mike Jones’ game-saving tackle of Titans receiver Kevin Dyson a yard short of the goal line as time ran out. Another example would be golf’s 2012 Masters tournament where, deadlocked in a playoff with Louis Oosthuizen, Bubba Watson hit an incredible shot from the trees to leave his ball just over two yards from the cup, from where he made the putt for the win and the legendary green jacket.
While these yards were certainly involved in classic game-changing moments, one of the most historic yards in all of sports lies embedded in the track at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The famous “yard of bricks” is synonymous with the 2.5-mile track. Track owners repaved the speedway in late 1909 after the first two motorsports events held at the track ended with issues concerning the original track surface, a mixture of gravel, limestone and stone chips, among other things.
After subsequent repaving projects, the final sections of brick were paved over in October 1961. The exception was the 36-inch brick section that makes up the start-finish line. Now, crossing those bricks in front of 42 other NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competitors guarantees a driver’s name is cemented forever in the famed track’s record books, as Jimmie Johnson has done three times – 2006, 2008 and 2009.
Johnson’s Brickyard 400 victories were hard-earned. In 10 races, his wins account for his only three top-five finishes. He has four top-10 results in the event, meaning despite his three victories, he has only one other finish of 10th or better (ninth in 2002). Three of his 10 appearances produced finishes of 36th or worse (36th in 2004, 38th in 2005 and 39th in 2007). It is safe to say Johnson’s results in one of the sport’s crown jewel events have been feast or famine.
His three victories, however, place him among the racing world’s elite. There are only five drivers in all major motorsports series – Sprint Cup, IndyCar, Formula 1 – with more wins at Indianapolis. Those names include some of the most recognizable drivers in the world. Jeff Gordon’s four Brickyard 400 wins are the most. IndyCar drivers A.J. Foyt, Al Unser and Rick Mears also have four wins in the illustrious Indy 500. All drivers, however, are eclipsed by Formula 1 champion Michael Schumacher, who has five wins in the U.S. Grand Prix at Indianapolis.
Johnson’s three victories were won in varying fashion. His first in 2006 was only the second time in Sprint Cup history that a driver won the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400 in the same year. Dale Jarrett did it first in 1996. Despite cutting a tire early in the race, the team rebounded with Johnson passing Dale Earnhardt Jr., with less than 10 laps to go on his way to his first Brickyard 400 victory that led to his first of five consecutive Sprint Cup championships. The 2006 victory was also the first time Johnson had led a lap at the track, and it was his first top-five finish in five races at Indy.
His second win in 2008 and was his 35th career win in the series. Johnson held off Carl Edwards after final pit stops for a seven-lap run to the end to earn his second Brickyard 400 trophy in a race where the racing surface played havoc with tire wear.
Johnson took his third Brickyard 400 trophy in four races the following year, becoming the first driver with consecutive wins in 16 NASCAR races at Indy. Juan Pablo Montoya led 116 of the 160 laps but was penalized for speeding on pit road. Mark Martin soon took the lead but Johnson passed him on lap 137. Martin made a run at the lead in the final 10 laps, but Johnson was able to hold on for the win.
Johnson will go for his fourth win Sunday. To earn it, however, he must cross over the most hallowed yard in sports first to claim victory.