Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a car that likely couldn’t win the Aaron’s 499 unless there was no one else beside him and he could slingshot by teammate Jimmie Johnson.
There wasn’t that opportunity – there wasn’t enough time and there were a pair of other two-car drafts coming to the finish beside them – so Earnhardt Jr. pushed Johnson to the victory while he settled for fourth Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.
After the race, Johnson came by and gave Earnhardt Jr. the checkered flag, something Earnhardt Jr. said he didn’t necessarily deserve.
“[He said] it belonged to me, but I don’t agree with that,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “But I appreciate it, and I’ll get him to sign it and there will be one checkered flag I’ve got that ain’t mine.”
Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. were 11th and 12th going into the final two laps and seventh and eighth going into the final lap but got the run they needed to catch the leaders by Turn 3 and then used the inside lane to make it three-wide at the finish.
Johnson hit the finish line just 0.002 seconds ahead of Clint Bowyer on the outside. Jeff Gordon was in the middle to finish third and Earnhardt Jr. wound up fourth.
“If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race because I had worked with him all day and he is my teammate,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I am proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports and this was a great finish and a great weekend for us. … I would have loved to have won the race, but in this kind of package, you’ve got to make some sacrifices, just like a relationship. I didn’t have that opportunity [to win] but I was happy with the way things worked out.”
Earnhardt Jr. said on the final lap he just was hoping that Johnson wouldn’t lift because he was shoving hard.
“We came out of [Turn] 4 and he said he was going to the bottom,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “He didn’t show his hand, which was really smart. … They tried to squeeze us down and I got into the side of Mark [Martin] real hard and turned myself sideways and I thought we were going to have a hell of a wreck.
“But I was able to save it somehow. I had enough energy to push Jimmie ahead. I didn’t know who won the race.”
Earnhardt Jr. moved up three spots to third in the standings and has a 31-point cushion on 11th as he looks to get in the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time in three years.
“We just orchestrated our plan well,” said Earnhardt Jr. crew chief Steve Letarte. “We said we’re going to run with the 48 [of Johnson] all day and we did.
“We seemed to be a little quicker with the 48 out front. We were a little better pusher. When we were leading, we would drive off the 48’s bumper, so that’s the order they had to come to the finish. It was good. It was a win [for Hendrick and our shop].”
Letarte said the reason the 48/88 shop won that race is because Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson worked together all day.
“This says a lot for our entire building,” Letarte said. “To bring two cars down here, to come down here with a plan, execute the plan and get to victory lane, job done.”
Earnhardt Jr. said he expected that plan because he learned a valuable lesson in the Nationwide Series race when he didn’t work with Aric Almirola at the end but instead tried to work with Justin Allgaier out of convenience because of the way they were positioned on the final restart.
“We always knew that working with our teammates is what we needed to do, but we all had commitment-phobia,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Nobody really wanted to go all the way. Finally, today we decided after I learned in the Nationwide race that I didn’t work with my teammate at the end of that race and we didn’t finish well.”
On the final lap Sunday, the spotter for Earnhardt Jr., T.J. Majors, was the one guiding the duo, and they originally had planned to take the top lane. But Johnson told Earnhardt Jr. they wouldn’t be able to get in the middle and then went low.
“He made a lot of right calls at the end,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “It was faster with him leading and I felt better about pushing him through the pack and felt better about him making the decisions we were going to have to make at the end.
“He did a great job.”