TALLADEGA, Ala. — Jimmie Johnson won the race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the checkered flag.
Maybe they should go in the NASCAR record books as co-winners.
In a finish that matched the closest in Sprint Cup history, Johnson edged Clint Bowyer by about a foot to win a Talladega two-step Sunday — a victory that wouldn’t have been possible without a big push from Earnhardt.
Junior gave up a chance to end a 101-race winless streak, selflessly agreeing to shove the No. 48 car of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate instead of vice versa in what was essentially a tag-team event.
“I can’t thank Junior enough,” Johnson said. “He made the decision that my car was faster leading. And the way these things are finishing up, the lead car’s going to get the win. … He was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything.”
The official margin was two-thousandths of a second, tied with Ricky Craven’s win at Darlington in 2003 for the closest since NASCAR went to electronic timing.
It came down to an eight-car sprint. Well, actually, four pairs of cars, with only the guys at the front of the duos having a chance to win the Aaron’s 499.
After laying back most of the day, the five-time series champion hugged the yellow line at the bottom of the track — flirting with a penalty — and pulled out his 54th career victory and first of the season.
“We were just the lucky guy at the end with a good run,” Johnson said. “We had some big mo on our side, and off we went.”
He couldn’t have done it without Earnhardt, who was given the checkered flag by the winner.
“That just came to my mind,” Johnson said. “He was like, ‘Man, I don’t want that.’ But I told him, ‘I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’ He just said, ‘That’s what teammates do.'”
Even though Earnhardt hasn’t won since 2008, he thought it was a no-brainer to get behind Johnson.
“If I couldn’t win the race,” Junior said, “I wanted Jimmie to win the race, because I had worked with him all day and he is my teammate.”
There was a bit of dispute over Johnson’s winning move. He clearly touched the yellow line with his left tires, but appeared to be forced low by an attempted block from his other two Hendrick teammates, Jeff Gordon and pusher Mark Martin. NASCAR officials ruled it was a legal pass.
“I was not focused on where the yellow line was,” Johnson said. “I was more worried about causing a big pileup. Luckily, the 5 car (Martin) quit coming down. I don’t know where my left-side tires were, but I’m glad we’re not here worrying about that.”
Johnson got a huge run coming out of the fourth turn, surged past Gordon and Martin coming through the trioval and edged Bowyer in a four-wide dash down the long finishing straightaway at Talladega Superspeedway.
“What a bummer,” said Bowyer, who led a race-high 38 laps. “I saw him coming.”
Earnhardt was fourth. Kevin Harvick, who was Bowyer’s pusher, wound up fifth. Carl Edwards almost got into the mix as well, going right up against the outside wall with Greg Biffle on his bumper but didn’t have enough room to pull it off, finishing sixth.
Biffle was seventh, while Martin slipped to eighth. The top eight were just 0.145 seconds apart.
The finish made up for a day of lackluster racing with this new tandem style, which the drivers began using at the season-opening Daytona 500 and really perfected at this 2.66-mile tri-oval.
Twenty-six leaders swapped the top spot 88 times, tying the record set in last year’s spring race at Talladega. Many of those changes were carefully choreographed by pairs who were merely trying to stay out of trouble, conserve their cars and give themselves a chance at the end.
“If you didn’t like that finish and forget about the race, there’s something wrong with you,” Bowyer said. “It always seems to fix itself at the end of these restrictor-plate races. We always have a hell of a finish.”
Hendrick Motorsports claimed the first four spots in qualifying, only the third team in NASCAR history to sweep the first two rows in a Cup race. They were all right there at the end.
“With as crazy as it gets in these closing laps, sometimes a third is almost like a victory at these type of race tracks,” Gordon said.
Before that, it was a lot of mundane riding-around.
Rather than run together in huge drafting packs, which used to be the norm at the restrictor-plate tracks, the drivers figured out they can go even faster in pairs. So, everyone cut deals before the race, usually with teammates, and swapped radio frequencies so they could make changes on the fly if needed once the green flag dropped.
One guy in the pairing would run out front for a while, then they’d switch positions before the driver doing the pushing overheated his car.
The most important thing was staying together. During an early pit stop, Johnson stayed in a little longer to make some adjustments on his car. Earnhardt just idled in his box, waiting to go back out with his partner.
“It’s different,” said Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief. “It’s definitely different.”
Of course, bumping cars from behind and pulling off choreographed switches at 190 mph didn’t always go smoothly — especially when the second driver in a tandem can’t see a thing.
Kurt Busch can attest to that. He twice got into cars while pushing, totally blind to what was going on in front of him.
First, the No. 22 car nudged the rear bumper of Landon Cassill’s machine on lap 28, sending him into Brian Vickers, whose car smashed into the outer wall at the start of the backstretch. Fortunately, Vickers entirely missed a wave of cars bearing down on his sliding vehicle.
Busch was at the center of things again on the second crash of the day. He appeared to clip Brad Keselowski from behind when the lead car slowed, sparking a five-car melee that also took out Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, David Ragan, Marcus Ambrose and Kasey Kahne, who had to abandon his smoking car before getting back to pit road.
The 20-year-old Bayne had another disappointing finish since that improbable Daytona win in just his second Cup start. The youngster hasn’t finished higher than 17th since then, dropping all the way to 40th at Talladega.
“So much is out of your hands here,” said Matt Kenseth, who was taken out in the other big crash of the day. “It’s a frustrating type of racing, to say the least. It would be nice to be able to see and control your own destiny a little more.”