NASCAR & Auto Racing

Did Jimmie Johnson let Dale Earnhardt Jr. win at Talladega?

Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, talks with Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane after the Talladega 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega on Sunday. Some fans have theorized Johnson didn’t do enough to try to pass Earnhardt, but Johnson disagrees.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., left, talks with Jimmie Johnson in Victory Lane after the Talladega 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Talladega on Sunday. Some fans have theorized Johnson didn’t do enough to try to pass Earnhardt, but Johnson disagrees. AP

Jimmie Johnson stood next to a million reasons he would do whatever it took to win the May 16 NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Yet more than 48 hours after its finish, Johnson continued to find himself trying to offer a convincing one to some fans who believe he spent most of Sunday helping Hendrick Motorsports teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. win the Sprint Cup race at Talladega, Ala.

“It’s the most ridiculous thing, ever,” said Johnson, of the accusations that he didn’t try to win the race himself. Johnson has been hounded by questions from fans, particularly on social media, in part because of how the final 20 laps of the race were run mostly single-file.

Johnson and his crew chief, Chad Knaus, took part in a news conference Tuesday surrounded by stacks of bills that equaled the $1 million prize to the winner of the all-star event, something Johnson has won four times.

“If I didn’t win, absolutely I’d want it to be the Nos. 88, 24 or 5,” Johnson said of his teammates Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon and Kasey Kahne. “On that side, I’m stoked for him. But I was doing everything in my power to set up a pass for the win.”

The problem, Johnson said, was the excellent strategy employed by Earnhardt in the final laps to run the high-line around the track.

“He did a great job,” Johnson said. “If enough cars had gone to the bottom, the bottom is a lot faster, but you can’t do it alone and everybody was afraid to be the first to pull out of line.”

Johnson’s own prior experience in similar situations left him satisfied to run second and hope for an opportunity on the final lap.

“I’ve pulled out (of line) running second running down the back straightaway and I’ve finished 15th every time, or worse, so I decided to be patient,” he said.

Some fans have even theorized Johnson was paying back Earnhardt for some help Earnhardt provided in Johnson’s April 2011 win at Talladega.

“If that makes them happy, that’s cool,” he said tongue-in-cheek. “I’m kind of afraid to have them on my side because they’ve hated me forever.

“I’m not sure I want all this.”

Next up in NASCAR

During a ceremony at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, 12 drivers were formally introduced as the newest members of the “NASCAR Next” class.

The program, now in its fifth year, is used to help develop young up-and-coming drivers prepare for potential careers in NASCAR’s three national series – Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

The newest class consists of Rico Abreu, 23, of Rutherford, Calif.; Nicole Behar, 17, Otis Orchards, Wash.; Kyle Benjamin, 17, Easley, S.C.; James Bickford, 17, Napa, Calif.; William Byron, 17, Charlotte; Cole Custer, 17, Ladera Ranch, Calif.; Ruben Garcia Jr., 19, Mexico City; Austin Hill, 21, Winston, Ga.; Jesse Little, 18, Sherrill’s Ford; Dylan Lupton, 21, Wilton, Calif.; John Hunter Nemechek, 17, Mooresville; and Dalton Sargeant, 17, Boca Raton, Fla.

Hornish gets new crew chief

Richard Petty Motorsports announced Kevin Manion would take over as crew chief for driver Sam Hornish Jr. and his No. 9 Ford team, effective immediately.

Manion replaces Drew Blickensderfer, who has been offered another position within the organization, the team said in a statement.

Utter: 704- 358-5113; Twitter: @jim_utter

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