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Johnson leads eight-car pack to photo finish at Talladega

Johnson leads eight-car pack to photo finish at Talladega

by Matt Taliaferro

Restrictor-plate racing at NASCAR’s two largest ovals in Daytona and Talladega has always been known as a high-speed chess match — one that, more often than not, produces tight, thrilling finishes.

At no race was that more evident than at Talladega Superspeedway on Sunday, where Jimmie Johnson won by .002 seconds over Clint Bowyer in the Aaron’s 499, tying the record for closest margin of victory since NASCAR adopted electronic timing and scoring.

But Johnson and Bowyer were only two of the central characters in a frantic 11–lap dash to the finish. Four “pods” of teammates — Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bowyer and Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle — diced their way through a final lap that concluded with a nearly four-wide scramble at the finish line. The Johnson/Earhardt duo made the race-winning move to the low groove in the tri-oval, flirting with a yellow-line, out of bounds penalty, to complete a thrilling come-from-behind victory.

And in a style of racing that requires cooperation among competitors in hopes of victory, corporate teammates are an invaluable part of the equation. Exhibit A: Johnson and Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports drivers stayed hooked together from the drop of the green, leading early, then dropping to the back of field in the mid-stages, only to make a run to the front late.

“He (Earnhardt) was committed, as was I, and it showed today,” Johnson said. “Neither one of us were selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car (Johnson’s) leading was faster; we agreed.

“We had a plan coming into the race, and stuck to it and learned a lot as the event went on, really Junior and I did, on how we would communicate, on what runs we could make, how we could set them up, how we could pass, how to have the guy push and could cool his car. Really, there was a lot of learning that went on through all of the laps throughout the race.”

So vital was the teamwork to orchestrating Johnson’s victory that he gave Earnhardt the checkered flag in lieu of a trophy.

“I handed it to him and he said, "Man, I don't want that,’” Johnson explained. “I said, ‘Well, I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’

“He said, ‘No, that's what teammates do.’ I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too.’ He says, ‘No, I don't want the trophy. I'll take the flag, though.’”

Earnhardt joked that, "It'll be the one checkered flag I got that ain't mine!”

Earnhardt credited lessons learned from the previous day’s Nationwide Series race with Sunday’s game plan. In that race, he was separated from his JR Motorsports teammate, Aric Almirola, which resulted in eighth- (Earnhardt) and 10th- (Almirola) place finishes.

"We all had commitment phobia. Nobody really wanted to go all the way," Earnhardt said. "So I told (Johnson) today, ‘We gotta stay committed no matter what happens. Every lap. Every restart.’ And it worked out."

A third Hendrick driver — Gordon — was credited with third. Behind him, Earnhardt, Harvick, Edwards, Biffle and Martin rounded out the top 8.

When asked if there was any solace in knowing he lost by a record margin, runner-up Bowyer laughed, saying, “Hell no, that sucks! It's never very good to know you made NASCAR history by losing. Sooner or later I need to start making history by winning. That guy's won enough.”

The same cannot be said for Earnhardt, whose 100-race winless skid reached 101 with Sunday’s near-miss. However, the chemistry between he and crew chief Steve Letarte is undeniable, as evidenced by their seventh top-12 run in eight races. And with a return to Daytona’s plate action on the July Fourth weekend, maybe Johnson can return the favor.

“I think we take the exact same approach and see how it shakes out the end,” Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus said of the strategy for the next plate race. “If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed that will be it — we will follow him across the line with sparks and fire a-blazing.”

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<p> Jimmie Johnson earned his first victory of the 2011 Sprint Cup season with a thrilling win in the Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway.</p>