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Johnson Meets Up With The Intimidator In Atlanta

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, February 29 2016
Jimmie Johnson saluted Dale Earnhardt after winning Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

Jimmie Johnson saluted Dale Earnhardt after winning Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Alan Marler)

By Jim Pedley | Managing Editor
RacinToday.com

Regrettably, Jimmie Johnson said Sunday afternoon, there will always be one goal in racing that he will never accomplish: The six-time Sprint Cup champion will never be able to say he raced against Dale Earnhardt.

sprint-logo-08But after taking the checkered flag to win at Atlanta Motor Speedway Sunday, Johnson let the world know  how much it means to him to have at least brushed shoulders with Earnhardt’s legacy.

Johnson’s victory at Atlanta was the 76th of his career and it gave him the same number of race wins as seven-time champion Earnhardt. Afterward, Johnson did a couple of wimpy burnouts (crew chief Chad Knaus ordered up the wispiness), collected and waved the checkered flag and then took a reverse victory lap while holding up three fingers to the crowd.

Pride and joy accompanied the salute.

“I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years,” Johnson said of “throwing the three” to salute Earnhardt and his famed No. 3 Chevrolet, “and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt Sr. is something I’m very, very proud of.”

Earnhardt died on the final lap of the 2001 season-opening Daytona 500. Johnson, on that day, was just a spectator. He was a full-time driver in what is now known as the XFINITY Series and would not make his first Sprint Cup start until the autumn race at Charlotte Motor Speedway later that season.

Johnson said the fact that he missed competing against Earnhardt has always bugged him.

“I didn’t have a chance to race against him, unfortunately,” Johnson said. “There’s been a big void in my

Jimmie Johnson has sprayed a lot of champagne  during his career. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

Jimmie Johnson has sprayed a lot of champagne during his career. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Andrew Coppley)

mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity.  So to tie him today, for myself personally, it gives me a little something, it’s a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I’m very proud of.”

Johnson watched Earnhardt’s legendary career and persona build the way most people did – on television and from grandstands.

Johnson, a native of California, loved and hated and was amazed by Earnhardt just like the rest of the world.

“As a spectator watching him,” Johnson said, “I was in shock at Bristol when he got Terry and Terry still won, I thought, wow, that was cool to win that way, and the next time he got Terry, and he won, and I was like, ooh, and I couldn’t believe that the entire place booed him.

“My younger brother Jarit was a big Earnhardt fan, and I ended up being a Gordon fan, and the banter we had back and forth through all of it was just fun.  I guess it’s just what all of our fans do day in and day out and they pick their driver and have their rivalries internally in their own house.

“A lot of fun memories of picking on my brother, but he won a lot, so it was tough to always have the upper hand.”

Johnson and Earnhardt are now tied with the seventh most victories in Cup history. That will undoubtedly change – perhaps as early as next weekend – and when it does, Earnhardt will be knocked back one notch on the Big List.

Still, victory No. 76 met with the approval of two very important groups of people – fans and the

Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Teammates Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson. (RacinToday/HHP file photo by Alan Marler)

Earnhardt family.

After Johnson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon, tied won for the 76th time at Phoenix in 2007, he was given the one-finger salute by fans. But on Sunday at Atlanta, Johnson was treated much more cordially by fans.

“I saw a lot of 3s coming back,” Johnson said.  “I haven’t had a chance to look at social media and see what’s going on there, but I felt like there was a warm reception, and regardless of the reception, I know what it means to me, and I know what it means to our sport and everyone in it working, as well.  I’ll be good with all of that.  If there’s some fans that have other opinions, then it is what it is.”

Then there was the response of the Earnhardt family on Sunday.

Kelley Earnhardt Miller – Dale Sr.’s daughter – tweeted congratulations.

Cool, Johnson said.

“It made me smile more to hear that Kelley sent out that tweet.”

Then, Dale Jr. delivered his blessing in person.

“You know,” Johnson said, “I talked to Dale six months ago or a while ago, last year at some point about it, and I also talked to Jeff.  I was shocked that he had a little bit of backlash when he flew the 3 flag in Phoenix, and I was like, really, why?  So I just made sure that I spoke to Junior a little bit, and he shared with me that he really feels like his dad would have had a ton of respect for me and would have enjoyed racing against me, and we would have had a great friendship.  Kind of covering that base with Dale a while ago helped me, and with the confusion of how overtime works, I kind of forgot that that win was 76 and then it hit me after I had taken the checkered flag and was doing my victory lap, so I had to come back around and certainly wanted to pay respect to Dale.”

Earnhardt Jr. was told that Johnson regrets never having been able go head-to-head against his father. Junior said, yep, too bad.

“You know,” Earnhardt Jr. said, “I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed competing against him.  I mean, I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you it’s not a lot of fun.

“You know, knowing dad and knowing Jimmie’s character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him.  He said he felt the same way about Jeff when Jeff came in.  He had nothing but awesome things to say about Jeff when Jeff was a rookie and they ended up becoming great friends and working together in businesses away from the racetrack and doing things together, so they definitely trusted each other, but they’re definitely tough competitors on the track.

“But Jimmie, how can you not like Jimmie?  He’s just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he’s ever said or anything he’s ever did, so I think it’s awesome to praise him.”

Rick Hendrick has gone up against Earnhardt Jr. Not from the cockpit of a stock car, but as a team owner from the top of pit boxes.

In the post-race press conference, somebody tried to get Hendrick to liken Johnson to Earnhardt. Very different people and drivers, Mr. H said.

“I think Dale was more aggressive,” he said. He didn’t get that Intimidator title by being nice to everybody.  If he got to you, he’d move you, and that was…and I think he intimidated a lot of people, and he was a heck of a race car driver.  He could do things that I didn’t see a lot of people do.

“The one thing about Jimmie Johnson, he doesn’t put a fender on anybody.  He does it clean, and he races…if they’re fast or he lets them go, and he treats everybody with a lot of respect.

“They’re two different style drivers, but both of them were awesome.  Dale won seven championships, so that speaks for itself.  But I think Jimmie does it in a very – I’d say very professional way – not professional maybe, that’s not the right word.  He’s not as aggressive, and he will race you extremely clean.  I’m not saying that Dale didn’t do – if he got to you and it was for the win, he was going to move you, and that’s his job.  I think that’s the difference in the two.”

Johnson and Earnhardt’s paths could cross again. Perhaps as soon as this November as Johnson could tie Earnhardt – and Richard Petty – for most championships in history; seven. He may then pass Earnhardt – and Petty – by winning and eighth.

Johnson may or may not find Earnhardt Nation to be as friendly if/when those things happen. But on Sunday at Atlanta, all was good and right.

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Monday, February 29 2016
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