|ESPN.com: Sprint Cup||[Print without images]|
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. was wrapping up a pit road interview following Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway when teammate Jimmie Johnson pulled up in his car.
Earnhardt walked over to congratulate his teammate.
Johnson handed him the checkered flag and invited him to join the celebration in Victory Lane.
"He said it belonged to me, but I don't agree with that," Earnhardt said after his fourth-place finish. "I appreciate it. I'll get him to sign it and it'll be one checkered flag that ain't mine."
He's wrong. Earnhardt deserved the flag as much as the five-time defending Cup champion. Without him agreeing that the Hendrick Motorsports tandem was faster with him pushing, without him holding things together in the wildest four-wide, eight-car scramble you'll ever see, Johnson wouldn't have been in the top five.
It was a classy move by a driver who hasn't been to Victory Lane now in 101 consecutive races.
Johnson knew that and returned the class with class.
"Just came to mind," Johnson said of his gesture. "I handed it to him and he said, 'Man, I don't want that.' I said, 'Well, I've got to give you something for the push and working with me.'
"He said, 'No, that's what teammates do.' I smiled and said, 'Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too.' "
It's not every day you get the flag and a trip to Victory Lane for finishing fourth, even if fourth was only .058 seconds behind the winner.
But in many ways this was a win for Earnhardt. He made the right call to be the pusher in a two-car draft, didn't wreck as he did in February at Daytona -- where two-car dancing took on a new meaning -- and earned a ton of respect from Johnson.
"Man, he's a riot,"Johnson said. "You guys scan all the time, but to hear him on the channel and Stevie [Letarte] and the things he talks about. ... Can I have this channel more often just to listen?"
Crew chief Chad Knaus smiled and said, "No."
"I mean, there's some entertaining stuff going on," Johnson continued. "On a serious note, he was committed, as was I, and it showed today. Neither one of us were selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car leading was faster; we agreed."
|Dale Earnhardt Jr., right, played a major role in Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson's victory at Talladega.|
Johnson was proud of that. So was team owner Rick Hendrick. He came to this 2.66-mile facility half expecting Earnhardt to end his losing streak. Knowing how badly Earnhardt wants to win as much or more than anyone, he appreciated the sacrifice it took to play the supporting role at the end.
"That's a helluva teammate to say we're faster with you in the front," said Hendrick, noting this was the first time he left Talladega with four cars intact. "Junior made the call, and they did it. They had a plan and they stuck to it. Every other time I've been down here we had a plan and never stuck to it. It was good to see."
It was wild to see, whether you were in the grandstand, the lead pack or watching on television. But the finish was particularly wild from Earnhardt's view, or lack of view, behind the No. 48.
For the most part, all he saw was a spoiler.
The two actually fell off the pace with about four laps remaining because Earnhardt's motor was running too warm. When they finally reconnected, Earnhardt pushed Johnson past a large group on the bottom.
Heading to the final lap, they were behind the tandems of Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin on the inside, with Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick on the outside and Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle closing against the wall.
Johnson ducked to the bottom going into Turn 3, but Gordon and Martin blocked. Let's let Earnhardt, who did a masterful job of staying on Johnson's bumper, take it from here.
"I had no idea how many cars were in front of him," he said. "I was screaming on the radio for him not to lift no matter what. TJ [Majors, spotter] was screaming and Jimmie was screaming. Jimmie was telling me, 'I might go to the middle.' No, the middle is blocked. We come out of four. He said, 'I'm going to the bottom.'
"He didn't show his hand, which was really smart. He kind of sat in there behind them. We formed a run. They tried to sweep us down. I got into the side of Martin real hard and turned myself sideways. I thought we were going to have a helluva wreck."
Instead, Earnhardt pulled off the save and had enough momentum to push Johnson to a .002-second victory over Bowyer, the closest finish in NASCAR history.
"I didn't know who won the race," Earnhardt said. "I just wanted to get a good finish. I would have loved to have won the race. In this kind of package you've got to make some sacrifices, just like a relationship."
That's a helluva teammate to say we're faster with you in the front. Junior made the call, and they did it. They had a plan and they stuck to it.” -- Rick Hendrick on Dale Earnhardt Jr. ceding position to Jimmie Johnson
This season has been all about relationships for Earnhardt. He's got a good one now with his crew chief, pit crew and seemingly everyone in the organization. The bond between him and Johnson definitely got a boost on this sun-splashed day.
"I felt better about pushing him through the pack," Earnhardt said. "I felt better about him making the decision we were going to make at the end."
If you remember, it wasn't that long ago that Earnhardt was critical of Johnson as a plate driver. Now he's calling him smart and letting him make the key moves.
"We would have been pushing the 88 if Dale hadn't come on the radio and said we were faster with Jimmie in front," Knaus said.
The sacrifice will pay off one day. Perhaps at the next restrictor-plate race at Daytona in July, Johnson will return the favor. He does owe him one.
But one gets the feeling Earnhardt will win before then. He already has five top-10s, three shy of what he had all last season. He has three top-5s, equaling his total of a year ago when he finished 21st in points.
He's also third in points, 19 behind Edwards and only 14 behind Johnson in second.
"If he keeps doing this, he'll get there," Hendrick said.
Earnhardt is getting closer, and a checkered flag and trip to Victory Lane isn't half bad for fourth place.
"Yeah, yeah, man, points," Earnhardt said as he handed the flag to a member of his staff for safe keeping. "I like trophies, but points are cool, too."
David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.