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My Brickyard Moment: Jimmie Johnson, 2006

Note: This continues a series of letters from NASCAR's best as they recount their Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records wins and other big moments to happen at the Brickyard. Read other installments of "My Brickyard Moment" here.

In this 2009 letter, Jimmie Johnson explains his appreciation for the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the challenges he went through trying to understand how to race successfully at Indy and that nervous feeling of finally getting to “Kiss the Bricks.” Johnson, one of the winningest NASCAR Cup Series drivers at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, is competing in his final season as a full-time NASCAR competitor. Johnson won his first Big Machine Hand Sanitizer 400 Powered by Big Machine Records in 2006. Then, he became the first NASCAR driver to win back-to-back at Indy, in 2008 and 2009. In 2012, he tied former teammate Jeff Gordon for the most NASCAR wins at the Racing Capital of the World with four and shared that record with his mentor until Gordon won his fifth Brickyard in 2014.

Some tracks just click with me, like I’ve always raced there and it's not a problem getting around them. Then there are a few NASCAR Cup Series tracks I still haven’t been able to figure out.

Indianapolis was one of those places I wasn't sure I would ever figure out. The first year that we won there, I figured out the rhythm of how to go fast. It just became apparent to me. I was doing the absolute wrong thing before that.

My teammate Jeff Gordon had plenty of success at Indy. We would qualify decent, but we'd get in a race and just struggle. Then at the end of the Happy Hour practice in 2006, something clicked for me. Our times really didn't show it, but I told my crew chief Chad Knaus: “I promise you, man, we're onto something here. I figured something out. We're going to be good tomorrow. Let's not change the car.”

He was like, “Jimmie, we’re really not that fast.” And I had to look in his eyes and tell him “Just believe me on this. There's something quick in those last couple laps of practice, and I think we'll be in good shape.”

We didn't make a lot of big changes to the car. We rolled it out to the track Sunday morning, dropped the green flag, and things started clicking. Then we had that tire problem and were still able to come back from that. That’s the way it works for me. I can’t explain it. When I finally get something and understand it, I kind of own it. Until it clicks for me, I will flounder around like a fool. Once I get it, I’m good.

When we got into those last 15 or 20 laps, I was chipping away at the cars ahead of me and getting closer to the front. When I got around Dale Earnhardt Jr. for the lead, the reality that I had a shot of winning hit me. When you get that feeling, it’s like you have a fever. Your breath gets short.

That sensation is there in any situation when you're going to win, but there are moments when it's much more intense. At Daytona and Indianapolis that sensation, the fever-like feeling, the hard-to-catch-your-breath feeling is much more intense.

I got the lead in 2006 when Junior and Kyle Busch were racing side-by-side. I was able to catch them and get by them with a huge run going into Turns 3 and 4.

At the Brickyard 400 in 2008, we had a fast car all weekend. We won the pole by a bunch. We were dialed in. It was all good. At the end of the race, I think two stops from the end, we came out second or third, and Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards were ahead of me.

That race boiled down to track position. I knew the last pit stop would be the key to victory. I came out with the lead, thanks to my guys in the pits, and I was able to win with Carl all over my rear bumper.

There is some sort of connection between the Brickyard 400 and winning the championship in the same season. I think winning that race shows what your team is made of. I don't think that it's going to happen every year, because the track is so different than anywhere else we race.

They say we take our Pocono setup to Indy, but I still have a hard time envisioning that. They are such different tracks. Indy is such a challenging track, and I think the team that has its act together and can sort out the challenges during Brickyard are championship-caliber teams. I don't think it'll happen every year, but it's a pretty darn good indicator of who's going to be a player in the championship.

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