Junior pushes Johnson to slim win at ’Dega
by Bran Strickland, Star sports editor
Apr 18, 2011 | 9850 views |  0 comments | 20 20 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TALLADEGA — With the hecticness of victory lane and his other post-race obligations, when race winner Jimmie Johnson came to speak with the assembled media, he still hadn’t seen for himself — outside of his view from inside the car — just how close the finish was of Sunday’s Aaron’s 499.

The video pulled up on a laptop in the infield media center showed him just exactly what a 0.002-second margin looked like.

As he stared at the screen, just one word came out, “Wow.”

But at a track that’s known for its raw, unbridled power, what Johnson attributed as the move of the race drew a much different word: Huh.

The defending five-time series points champion said his win wasn’t because he had the accelerator shoved to the floorboard. It was because he hit the brake.

With Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr.

pushing, Johnson edged Clint Bowyer at the start-finish line by the slimmest of margins to move into his familiar home, the NASCAR record book.

Behind the two car tandems of Jeff Gordon-Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer-Kevin Harvick, Johnson knew he needed a little extra to get to the finish line first. He said he drug his brake to allow teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to make solid contact with his rear bumper, and “build up energy.”

With that energy built up, Johnson dove to the bottom of the track, flirted with the taboo yellow line and edged Burton and Gordon, getting his Chevrolet bowtie sticker across the finish line first. The slim margin tied for the closest in NASCAR history since the advent of electronic scoring in 1993, when Ricky Craven edged Kurt Busch at Darlington in 2003.

“Right there, I drug the break,” Johnson said while watching the video, popping his fist into the palm of his hand three quick times.

The whole day seemed to be on a bit of a delay for Johnson. With as tight as the racing was, he had no way of knowing instantaneously whether or not this would be his first win of the season.

But even on the radio, there was reluctance with showing him the love.

“There was some mystery,” Johnson said. “I didn’t hear anything on the radio, and then first voice I heard as we went into Turn 1 was Junior, and it was something like, ‘Hell, I think the 48 won.’

“(Crew chief Chad Knaus) didn’t know what radio to talk to me on, and I didn’t know whether I had won or not, so I was going to stay in the throttle until I heard different.”

After Johnson and Bowyer, Hendrick Motorsports took the next two spots with Jeff Gordon and Earnhardt. Harvick, who was pushing Bowyer, rounded out the top five.

From the way things shook out in qualifying to the racing on Sunday, Johnson and Earnhardt took BFF to a whole new level, seldom separating bumpers no matter where they were in the field. The two swapped out leadership roles at times, finally going with the final order on the prompting of Earnhardt, who said he felt they would be better with him in the back.

Their laps times proved as much, and their finish just solidified it.

With other jockeying going on among the days dancing partners, the way it all shook out at the end was hardly a surprise to anyone.

Hendrick Motorsports set the tone with a record qualifying run, sweeping the top four spots. The Richard Childress Racing cars of Bowyer and Harvick weren’t a shocker either, as each had won a race here last season.

For Bowyer, the frustration of missing out on the win seemed to outweigh the accomplishment of two second-place finishes in as many weeks. For him, it wasn’t so much that he lost, but the way in which he lost.

Bowyer ran up front and in the lead pack for most of the day, a far cry from the more conservative approach taken by the Hendrick stable of drivers.

Of the crew, Johnson was out front the most, leading three different times for 13 laps, but all total, the four Hendrick drivers combined to lead only 33 laps, just six more than Bowyer did by himself.

“The only thing that bums me out about that is those guys lagged back all day long,” Bowyer said. “That’s what makes it tough, losing by somebody that did that.

“We were up front for our sponsors and our team and digging all day long. When you get it taken from you at the end by somebody who lagged back all day, it’s hard to take.”

Johnson however made no apologizes for his strategy. With the unpredictable nature of racing at Talladega Superspeedway, Johnson has been caught up in wrecks at various points in the race when running in various positions.

Part of the reason, he said, for the strategy working out was luck.

“Today we had our Jedi sense in order,” he said. “We were up front at the right times, we road at the right times. There were wrecks around us, in front of us …

“It’s really a gut feeling.”

Or luck.

And at Talladega, it’s always be better to be lucky than good.

Sunday, however, Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates were both.

Bran Strickland is the sports editor for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3570 or follow him on Twitter @bran_strickland.

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Junior pushes Johnson to slim win at ’Dega by Bran Strickland, Star sports editor

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