Dale Earnhardt Jr. (left) and Jimmie Johnson (right) plan to run their own races at Talladega.
Almost as predictable as "The Big One" has been the tendency of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson to work together in the draft when the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series competes at Talladega Superspeedway.
In popular NASCAR lingo, the proper term for the Hendrick Motorsports teammates is "dancing partners," but it really all boils down to this: Historically, when it comes to late-race situations at Talladega, Junior has had Jimmie’s back, and Jimmie has had Junior’s.
The two have drafted together numerous times in recent years for the benefit of both, and it has occasionally paid major dividends — including most memorably in spring 2011 when Earnhardt Jr. pushed Johnson to the lead and the win while coming through the tri-oval on the last lap.
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Sunday’s Geico 500 poses a different kind of scenario for both drivers, however. Tied for last among among the 12 remaining championship contenders, Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson both desperately need to win Sunday to advance to the upcoming Chase Elimiminator Round that will feature only the top eight drivers from this round.
Anything short of a victory all but guarantees that Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson won’t win the championship this season. In other words, the two teammates are going for the same prize on Sunday — but only one of them can have it. And there’s a real possibility that neither will.
So instead of looking out for each other here, as they customarily do, the teammates agree that this time it’s every man for himself.
"At the end of a race, it doesn’t matter if Junior or my mom or anybody — I have to win," said Johnson, who qualified second on Saturday and will start alongside pole winner Brian Vickers on the outside of Row 1. "My quest to win a seventh championship is the thing I’m most concerned about. I know my teammates are going to think the same way and have the same approach. We’re out there to win for our teams and ourselves to move on and have a shot at the championship."
Like Johnson, Earnhardt Jr. is far more concerned about his own outcome than anyone else’s — including Johnson’s.
"We all sort of just race our own races and run our own seasons," said NASCAR’s 11-time most popular driver, who starts 28th Sunday. "I would never expect any of my teammates to do anything differently. They’re supposed to go out there and run as good as they possibly can run and finish as well as they possibly can finish every week.
"We are one great company that we all try to work for and try to improve and help, but when it comes down to individual races, you’ve got to do everything you can for the guys that are putting your car together. And you want it, too.
"I definitely need to move forward. I need to get into the next round. We want to get into the next round, and we can’t worry about anybody else to make that happen."
But given their history of success from hooking up at the 2.66-mile high-banked track, could the plan be for Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson to draft together throughout most of the race, and merely break off and run their own race at the end?
"This is why drivers are drivers," Steve Letarte, crew chief on Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet, told FOXSports.com in the Talladega garage. "There are no team orders, there are no orders from Chad (Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief) and I. There’s a certain level of respect for your teammate. I would expect it’s the same way through the whole garage that there are moments in time where if it’s a coin flip you should choose your teammate, but if it’s not a coin flip and you’re going to hurt yourself doing it, then I expect Dale to look out for Dale and Jimmie to look out for Jimmie, and that’s what racing’s all about.
"That’s why people buy tickets and someone buys a Dale Jr. T-shirt. They want to see Dale Jr. try to win the race for him, and I would expect Jimmie to do the same."
Earnhardt Jr. has five wins at Talladega but none since 2004 and none since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 or joining forces with Letarte in 2011.
So in looking to Sunday, does Earnhardt Jr. think more about the races he’s won here, and how he won them, or the races he’s lost, and how he lost them?
"Not really either one," he said. "These races are like snowflakes at this place. They all play out differently and the people and players up front are a little different every time. What happens, how you get to the front and who you’re working with is never the same. There are just so many variables."
Of course, if Earnhardt Jr. fails to advance to the next Chase Round, it will be a particularly difficult pill to swallow when considering how strong the driver and his team have been for most of the year.
Earnhardt Jr. has three wins — his most in a single season since 2004 — ighlighted by his second Daytona 500 triumph back in February. But the recently turned 40-year-old has just one top-10 finish in five Chase races and has finished particularly woeful in the Contender Round races the past two weekends at Kansas and Charlotte.
But even if his title hopes end Sunday afternoon in Alabama, the driver and crew chief plan to leave with heads held high.
"We’d love to move on, but I’m not going to let this Chase define our season," Letarte said. "I think we’ve had a great year. It’ll be disappointing to be eliminated if we are, but I’m not going to let that disappointment mask the fact that we won the Daytona 500 and two other races, swept Pocono, had a lot of good runs. I still think there are races we can win between here and the end of the year, so without a doubt there will be disappointment, but I think if we let disappointment kind of affect our entire year, then shame on us."