Jimmie Johnson kisses the bricks after winning the Curtiss Shaver 400 at… (Tom Pennington / Getty Images )
INDIANAPOLIS — Jimmie Johnson won the battle Sunday in dominant fashion. But Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a big step toward winning the war.
Johnson won the Brickyard 400 again, joining Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon as the only four-time winners since NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series began racing at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 1994.
Earnhardt, who also drives for Hendrick and has enjoyed a strong car all season, finished fourth — his best Brickyard 400 finish in 13 tries — to lift him into the lead of the Cup championship standings.
It's the first time in nearly eight years that the popular Earnhardt has held the points lead. His charge to the top no doubt is sweet music to NASCAR, which has struggled with sluggish growth in attendance and TV ratings this season.
Indeed, the Brickyard 400 is emblematic of NASCAR's problem. The race once drew more than 200,000 spectators, but NASCAR estimated Sunday's attendance at 125,000, and even that figure appeared generous.
Johnson, with a record five consecutive Cup titles from 2006 through 2010, shot into the lead and never looked back Sunday after a restart with 20 laps left in the 160-lap race. The 36-year-old Californian led a race-high 99 laps.
"To come here and win is a huge honor," Johnson said after he and his team followed the tradition of kissing the strip of bricks at the start/finish line that remain from the speedway's old surface.
"Then to have four wins, I'm at a loss for words. I can tell you this, I'm so proud of my team."
Kyle Busch finished second, nearly five seconds behind Johnson. Greg Biffle was third and Gordon fourth.
"Jimmie Johnson was in his own country today," Busch said. "We just couldn't keep up with him."
On a mostly sunny day in the mid-80s, Earnhardt started 20th but quickly drove his No. 88 Chevrolet toward the front, passing 10 cars within the first 30 laps and staying in the top 10 throughout the race.
With his points lead, Earnhardt appears sure to qualify for NASCAR's Chase for the Cup playoff, in which 12 drivers vie for the championship over the season's final 10 races.
There are six regular-season races left to determine who qualifies for the Chase, which includes the top 10 drivers in points and two wild-card drivers who have the most wins among those 11th to 20th in points.
Matt Kenseth, who finished 35th after being involved in a wreck with Joey Logano, is 14 points behind Earnhardt in second place.
Biffle, a Kenseth teammate at Roush Fenway Racing, is third in the standings and Johnson fourth as he attempts to win his sixth title. The record is seven championships, accomplished by Richard Petty and Earnhardt's late father, Dale.
The younger Earnhardt, who in June won his first race in four years, said he was "real happy with our result today" but that "we need to win more races."
"If we want to win the championship, we have to," Earnhardt said. "I don't know if finishing fourth or fifth is going to do it."
Gordon, with four Cup titles of his own, said that if Earnhardt and his team "keep that consistency up and maybe even take it up a notch when the Chase starts, they're going to be a real threat for the championship."
Pole-sitter Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards led the 43-car field at the start, but Edwards quickly developed an engine problem that dropped him to a 29th-place finish. Hamlin finished sixth.
As often happens with stock cars on the flat, rectangular Indianapolis Motor Speedway, the field was strung out for much of the race. And there were few major incidents Sunday.
The biggest came with 27 laps remaining when Logano lost control of his Toyota, spun and slammed into Kenseth's Ford, knocking Kenseth out of the race.