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Johnson, Earnhardt stymied in final Talladega laps

October 24, 2011, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- As a five-time series champion and a five-time track winner, they comprised one of the strongest drafting tandems Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to NASCAR's biggest track hoping to show more of the teamwork that resulted in a victory for the No. 48 car here six months ago.

Instead, the mighty Hendrick Motorsports duo found itself mired back in the pack in the final laps, recording finishes that extended Earnhardt's winless skid to 125 races and may have finally ended Johnson's five-year championship reign. Earnhardt came home 25th, one spot better than Johnson, who is now a whopping 50 points behind series leader Carl Edwards with only four events remaining in the Sprint Cup season.

"We wanted to try to work our way toward the front in the last 20 laps. ... We just didn't have the track position at the end to make a run with two laps to go. Just not enough time."

--DALE EARNHARDT JR.

"We've just got to keep fighting, and keep working on getting every point we can at every race," Johnson said. "We have no clue what's going to happen to all the Chase drivers, and I want to finish as high as I possibly can in the Chase. That does mean the championship. If it's not there, I want to finish as high as I possibly can."

The pairing of Junior and Johnson -- would they have celebrated in Victory Lane with moonshine? -- led only a combined two laps Sunday, spending much of the race in the rear of the field in an attempt to avoid trouble. Johnson suffered a scare with about 25 laps remaining when Andy Lally caromed off his car and up into the wall, but the damage to his vehicle was minor. The real problems came at the end, when the drivers dealt with their own individual difficulties, and a flurry of cautions didn't provide them enough of an opportunity to climb back up through the field.

"Whenever we thought they were getting a little bit crazy, we'd move into the safe areas and we rode there most of the day with a lot of other people doing the same thing," Earnhardt said. "Then at the end, we had a lot of cautions late. We wanted to try to work our way toward the front in the last 20 laps. The cautions kept coming out, and we ran over some debris and we had to come to pit road. We just didn't have the track position at the end to make a run with two laps to go. Just not enough time."

It didn't help that the water in Johnson's engine-cooling system climbed perilously high. NASCAR lowered pressure-relief valve settings in the cars this week in a tacit attempt to break up some of the two-car drafting. Push for too long, and risk engine overheating and failure. Johnson found himself trying to play the role of pusher while also dealing with debris on his car's front end -- a recipe for overheating.

"We planned our strategy like we had hoped to," Johnson said. "And on that last restart at the end, we had some issues with my car overheating. That last caution that came out, I got some trash and grass and stuff on the grille of the car. We were out of sequence the way we were lined up. I was going to push Junior, and I had to be in the lead the way we had the debris on the grille. And then as we went to make our switch, the pack was organized and with the [final-laps] situation, there's not a lot of time to get organized, and we lost our momentum there, and got to the outside and kind of stalled out up on the top, and finished far worse than we had hoped to."

The end of the race was marred by three cautions in the final 20 laps, the last one turning the event into a two-lap sprint to the finish. Without those yellow flags, Earnhardt believes he and Johnson would have fared better.

"Yeah. There's a lot more room at this place," he said. "Daytona is real narrow when it comes down to it. We felt like we were in a good position to make our move inside those 20 laps to go, and we just kept having cautions and that sort of hurt our strategy a little bit and didn't give us a chance there with two to go. I mean, [you] run up on guys five-wide, you can't go nowhere."

After a crash last weekend at Charlotte, Johnson came to Talladega trailing by 35 points, which translated into a deficit almost equivalent to the 156-point gap he made up under the old system en route to his first championship in 2006. Next week brings perhaps his best track, Martinsville Speedway. But he's running out of races, and left Alabama in an even deeper hole.

Still, there were no concessions Sunday from the five-time champ. "We're going to keep fighting hard," Johnson said. "... and see what we can do."

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