Aaron’s 499 winner Jimmie Johnson handed his draft partner and Hendrick Motorsports teammate the flag, and it still counts as Earnhardt’s 101st consecutive race without a victory.
It just felt like a victory for Earnhardt, who pushed Johnson to a last-lap pass and victory by what tied as the closest margin since the advent of electronic timing in NASCAR.
“In some respects, he was more worried about the team,“ Johnson said. “He’s very responsible for this win today.”
And very much a team player.
Nobody came to Talladega more hungry for a victory than Earnhardt. He hadn’t won since 2008, and the 100-race winless streak was the longest of his 12-year Sprint Cup career.
It would have meant everything for Earnhardt to win at Talladega. He’s won here five times, more than at any other track, and “Daleadega” fans seamlessly transferred their love for Earnhardt’s late father onto the namesake son.
But Junior is part of NASCAR’s best team, and Hendrick came into the day with the four top-qualifying cars. Jeff Gordon had the pole, Johnson was on the front row, Mark Martin third and Earnhardt fourth.
Gordon and Martin came into the day planning to partner up as two-car draft partners. Johnson and Earnhardt did the same.
During the race, Johnson and Earnhardt determined they were better off with Earnhardt pushing and Johnson in front.
“I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie,” Earnhardt said. “I think we were the fastest combination that way.
“For some reason, when I was leading, I would drive off of his nose and just get away from him and we couldn‘t stay together.”
So they ran with Johnson in front — the No. 88 pushing the 48 as they combined their Hendrick power.
On the final lap, that power was just enough.
The Gordon-Martin combination had surged to the lead against the tandem of Clint Bowyer and Kevin Harvick. Late in the lap, Bowyer-Harvick moved to the high side of the track, and Gordon-Martin moved from the low side to the middle.
Johnson-Earnhardt saw the opening and made their move, per radio communication.
“When we got clear of the pack coming to the white, and I told Jimmie just don’t let up, no matter what,” Earnhardt said. “He was telling me, ‘All right, here we go.’
“At first, it looked like up the middle, then no, we’re going to the bottom. I just tried to stay in the back of him.”
Martin appeared to attempt to block too late, and he and Earnhardt nearly made contact.
“Somehow, I was able to give Jimmie enough of a shove to get him through there,” Earnhardt said. “If I couldn’t win the race, I was wanting Jimmie to win the race, because I was working with him all day long.
“He’s my teammate, and I’m proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports.”
Johnson edged Bowyer by .002 of a second, matching Ricky Craven’s 2003 victory at Darlington for closest margin in the electronic timing era.
In all, Hendrick had four of the top eight finishers. Gordon was third, Earnhardt fourth and Martin eighth.
Earnhardt did a victory spin on pit road, just in front of the turn-in to the garage area.
Later, Johnson stopped by, reached out the driver’s side window of his car and handed Earnhardt the checkered flag.
“He was like, ‘I don’t want it,’” Johnson said. “I said, ‘I’ve got to give you something, here.’ I just wanted to thank him for a job well done today.”
Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @Jomedstar.