Jimmie Johnson was a Jeff Gordon fan when he was a kid growing up in southern California. Johnson’s brother Jarit was a Dale Earnhardt fan.
“I have a lot of fun memories of picking on my brother, but (Earnhardt) won a lot,” said Johnson on Sunday, shortly after he won the QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “So it was tough to always have the upper hand.”
Now a six-time Cup champion, Jimmie Johnson has won as much as Earnhardt. Sunday’s victory, the 76th of Johnson’s career, moved him into a tie with Earnhardt for seventh on NASCAR’s all-time list.
“It’s special for sure,” said Johnson, who took advantage of a gutsy pit-stop call by crew chief Chad Knaus to win a green-white-checker finish. “I entered the sport just hoping I could win a race and keep a job for a few years, and to have 76 and tie Dale Earnhardt is something I’m very, very proud of.”
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Earnhardt, who died in a crash at Daytona in 2001, also has seven Cup championships, tied for most all-time with Richard Petty, and one more than Johnson.
“I didn’t have a chance to race against (Earnhardt), unfortunately, but there’s been a big void in my mind about not having that chance to race against him, and it was literally a handful of months away from having that opportunity,” said Johnson, whose full-time Cup career began in 2002. “So to tie him, it’s a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt and something I’m very proud of.”
After Johnson crossed the finish line ahead of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch, he did a victory lap in honor of Earnhardt Sr., waving three fingers out of his window, in honor of the number on Earnhardt’s iconic black Chevy.
That gesture wasn’t lost on Earnhardt’s son.
“You know, I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed competing against him,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I don’t think any of us really do. I love it when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and spanks you it’s not a lot of fun.
“Knowing dad and knowing Jimmie’s character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him. 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 done, so I think it’s awesome to praise him.”
Johnson’s 76th victory came in a car that was probably no better than third fastest on the track. Trailing Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. for much of the day, Johnson and Knaus figured they were headed for a third-place finish unless they came up with a strategy that might beat them another way.
With cars lasting about 40 laps on gas, a team engineer suggested to Knaus that they “short pit,” on Lap 276 (of 330), coming in for four new tires and gas well before the No. 48 Chevy ran out of fuel. That meant Johnson had a huge lead over Harvick and Truex after they came out of their pit stops about nine laps later.
It was a lead they wouldn’t be able to make up, even after a caution flag came out on Lap 323 when Ryan Newman spun on the front stretch. Johnson easily ran away from the field on the restart and won in overtime.
“It was a gamble for sure,” said Knaus. “We hadn’t gone that far yet on a set of tires. We could have easily just hung out and finished third, but we weren’t going to pass those guys, so we had to do something. So it was just a matter of how early to pit because if we didn’t pit early enough, if we only pitted just a couple laps earlier than everybody else, it would have pulled the rest of them down with us, so we had to make it to where we did it to where it would make them uncomfortable and not willing maybe to take that risk.”
It was a risk that paid off, and moved Johnson into prime territory on NASCAR’s career victories list (next up is Cale Yarborough with 83).
“I never thought when I got in the sport I’d win 76 wins with anybody altogether,” said team owner Rick Hendrick, who also has 93 with the recently retired Gordon. “When you look at Jimmie’s career and you look at how quick he’s gotten to 76 and he’s got six championships, I think you’ve got to say that he’s one of the best that’s ever been in the sport.
“You know, it means a lot to him and a lot to all of us. We’re all big Earnhardt fans, but it’s going to be interesting to see how many (more) races and championships Jimmie and Chad can win.”
Catching The Intimidator
Jimmie Johnson tied Dale Earnhardt for seventh place in career victories at NASCAR’s highest level:
Dale Earnhardt Sr.
Note: Includes victories in series preceding Sprint Cup: Strictly Stock (1949), Grand National (1950-70), Winston Cup (1971-2003) and Nextel/Sprint Cup (2004-present)