'You Find Out Who Your Friends Are'
Another week, another country music title. I went with Garth Brooks's "Thunder Rolls" last month in a Bristol race preview; this week, it's the above title by Tim McGraw.
In this past Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway, Dale Earnhardt Jr. went for a spin, and when the field came back around as he was re-firing, race leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson pulled by him. The result was that Junior ended up two laps down in 24th, where he finished the 500-lap race shortly thereafter.
The action drew the ire of Junior Nation, who have long had a vendetta against the five-time champion in the No. 48.
In general, I find this hatred to be unfounded. Many of Junior's fans used to cheer for his father, one of the most successful drivers in the history of the sport. When he tragically passed, the allegiance was transferred to someone with the same name in hopes that he would continue on the Earnhardt legacy of championships. Instead, those championships have been won by Jimmie Johnson, and fans have held that against him and his team, much like us Red Sox fans hold the Yankees' success against them.
On Sunday, however, I can understand the disappointment from Junior Nation in Jimmie Johnson pulling around the No. 88 as it re-fired. After all, every other car on the track held up to allow Dale Jr. to get back into formation, why couldn't the No. 48?
After the tough finish, Earnhardt Jr. said, "we know who our friends are out here," clearly a little miffed that he'd been snubbed by Johnson.
His crew chief, however, wasn't holding grudges. "I would never expect a teammate who was leading in the race to help you not go two laps down," said Steve Letarte. "That’s pretty embarrassing to ask him to do that."
Johnson, himself, aired his frustration on Twitter, sarcastically tweeting, "You haters have it right. I'm a bad teammate. I have a cheated up car, I'm lucky and the race was fixed. Gotta love twitter & #NascarFans." (Good point. How was it luck that he led 346 laps?)
In truth, while Earnhardt Jr. has the right to feel slighted, it probably wasn't something Johnson considered at the time. As Letarte suggested, Johnson's focus was winning the race.
Earlier in the STP Gas Booster 500, Ryan Newman had been penalized three laps for stopping on the track. In 2010 at Sonoma, Marcos Ambrose slowed under caution while leading. When his car failed to re-fire, he fell to seventh, which allowed Johnson to pick up his first Sonoma win.
Perhaps Johnson feared a penalty should he stop the pack on the track. Perhaps when Junior reversed to the top of the track, he read it as a sign that he should lead the field by. Whatever the case, it came off slightly rude, especially when the rest of the field held up - but it probably wasn't intended that way.
The thing that most disgruntled fans ignored was the fact that with only about 30 laps remaining, Earnhardt Jr. no longer had any shot at winning the race anyway. He was sitting in 21st, one lap down, before the caution; he came out 24th, two laps down, after the caution.
Ultimately, while Junior and his fans have the right to be disappointed with a teammate nudging the No. 88 another lap down the pylon, there shouldn't be any blame toward suggesting that Jimmie cost him a fair chance in the race.
"No," said Letarte in regards to if there was an issue with the No. 48 team. "The issue is when you run like crap and you get in the back." A fair observation from a car that had just one of those days.