SPARTA, Ky. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. heard about how his fans flooded Jimmie Johnson’s Twitter page after the five-time NASCAR champion seemed to abandon his Hendrick Motorsports teammate late in last week’s race at Daytona and couldn’t help but rib the social-media loving Johnson.
“I called him up and said, ‘Now you know why I don’t have Twitter,”’ Earnhardt said Friday at Kentucky Speedway, where the Cup series will make its debut this weekend.
Earnhardt couldn’t help but laugh, even if the fans of the series’ most popular driver weren’t quite so forgiving of Johnson’s late move to pit for gas instead of trying to nudge Earnhardt to his first victory in more than three years.
The duo spent most of the 400-mile race working as a two-car tandem, with Johnson serving as the pusher much in the same way Earnhardt pushed Johnson to victory at Talladega this spring.
Yet as the laps dwindled and the group of leaders started to pull away, Johnson crew chief Chad Knaus ordered his driver to pit in hopes that a little extra fuel would provide the difference if the there were multiple green-white-checkered finishes.
“It was just do what we can to get our best finish and kind of every man for themselves because we were so deep in the field,” Johnson said.
The decision left Earnhardt to fend for himself and he ended up 19th after getting caught up in a wreck on the final lap. Frustrating? Yes. Johnson’s fault? Hardly. The move didn’t exactly help him either. Johnson came in 20th.
“I figured Jimmie would still have a good opportunity to get up to me and help us and pretty much we were in fine shape until people forgot how to drive or people thought they could disobey the laws of physics or whatever they were trying to do,” Earnhardt said. “The caution was out. It was a good time to go to pit road.”
The disappointing night continued a mid-summer swoon by Earnhardt. He’s finished no better than 19th in any of his last three races, dropping him down to seventh in the standings with two months to go before the Chase for the championship begins.
It’s hardly time to panic, but it’s not exactly the direction Earnhardt would like to be going as the series enters the dog days.
“I hate what’s happened the last couple weeks,” Earnhardt said. “I have some regrets. Maybe I shouldn’t have beat up the car so much.”
And maybe, he allows, his fans shouldn’t beat up so much on Johnson, a recent Twitter convert.
“I don’t know if I should be that surprised at anything the fans (say), because they’re passionate you know,” Earnhardt said. “They get it in their minds what they think is right and what they think happened and they get up and run with it.”
Johnson was quick to point out that he received plenty of positive feedback from Earnhardt supporters, and declared the decision to pit a non-issue. It didn’t even come up during the weekly Tuesday team-wide call.
“It was pretty cut and dry,” Earnhardt said. “It really didn’t bother me at all.”
NOTEBOOK: Kyle Busch will be on the pole for the inaugural NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway, grabbing the top spot after rain washed out qualifying and the starting order was based on practice times.
Juan Pablo Montoya will start second in Saturday night’s 400-mile race and Kurt Busch will be third.
Nearly half of the 48 cars attempting to make the 43-car field got in a qualifying run before a thunderstorm resulted in qualifying to be based on the best laps during Friday’s practice session.
The storm kept Kentucky native Michael Waltrip from making the field. He was fourth fastest of the 22 cars that went through qualifying, but those numbers were wiped out and he will miss the race because his top practice speed wasn’t among the 43 fastest.