Johnson denies he let Earnhardt win, sounds off on Junior Nation
Most experts -- and drivers -- say it's one of the last places you want to be on the final lap at a superspeedway: The lead.
Out front with nothing but the finish line ahead of you, a line of cars barreling down on you, looking to slingshot past you on one last pass. A sitting duck if there ever was one in NASCAR.
Yet Dale Earnhardt Jr. found himself in exactly that spot at Talladega last Sunday . . . in fact, he found himself there with nearly 30 laps to go, with none other Jimmie Johnson on his tail the entire time.
Yet Johnson never made that slingshot move. Never tried to make a pass. In fact, during the broadcast, the NASCAR on FOX crew stated it wouldn't be surprising if Johnson instead pushed Earnhardt to the GEICO 500 win, giving his Hendrick Motorsports teammate his first win of the season.
On Tuesday, Johnson gave his side of the story, and he used a little humor to get his point across.
Speaking in Charlotte to promote the upcoming All-Star Race, Johnson was asked who he predicted to win the race.
"Since I let Junior win last week ..." he was quoted by ESPN as saying.
Then he took aim at social media.
"(The social media reaction) was more about, 'You owed us, thanks for letting Junior win,'" USA Today quoted Johnson as saying. "I'm like, 'For one, I didn't owe you. Two, you're taking away what your driver did. He won the race! You're acting like I just let him win the race."
"You'd think they'd would stand up and be like, 'My guy kicked butt today and he won the race,'" said Johnson, who finished second. "Instead, there's been a lot of, 'Oh, well you let him win."
Among his other replies when addressing the issue:
"There was never a thought of letting Earnhardt win."
"That's the most ridiculous thing ever."
Johnson said that he actually did want to make the final pass, but 1) had come out of line too early in the past and fallen out of the top 10 and had no intention of doing that again, and 2) he was waiting for a line to form at the bottom of the track but it never formed. He added that when he realized the line wasn't coming, he tried to drag his brakes to get then-third-place driver Ryan Blaney to give him a push, but the 48 never got enough of a shove to make a move.
In the end, Denny Hamlin made the boldest move out of fourth place, but he was too far from Earnhardt and not close enough to trailing cars to make a winning run. Johnson finished the race in second, Blaney fourth and Hamlin ninth, offering some validity to Johnson's concern about the car falling out of line first falling back the farthest.
As for that whole "you owed us" business from Earnhardt fans?
In the 2011 Aaron's 499 at Talladega, it was Johnson using a push from Earnhardt to win, Junior ultimately finishing fourth and clearly focused on the push rather than making a move for the win. After the race, cameras caught Johnson going over to Earnhardt while Junior was still in his car and offering the runner-up his checkered flag.
“I handed it to him,” Johnson said at the time. “And he said, ‘Man, I don't want that.’ 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.’"
It was a scene that didn't sit well with Junior Nation, particularly considering the second-place finish stretched their driver's winless streak to 101 consecutive races at the time.
And does he think Junior's win will get the 88 fans off his back now?
"If it makes them happy, that’s cool," NASCAR.com quoted Johnson as saying. "I’m afraid to have them on my side because they’ve hated me forever, so I don’t know if I really want all this."