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Menzer: Johnson, Earnhardt partnership pays dividends

April 18, 2011, Joe Menzer, NASCAR.com

Putting two teams in same shop already making a difference for the drivers

First they started sharing the shop at the Hendrick Motorsports complex in Concord, N.C. Next thing you know, they're sharing the checkered flag at Talladega and so darn gracious toward one another that the actual race winner of Sunday's Aaron's 499 was offering his teammate the trophy and possible future benefits as well.

It appears this decision to move the No. 88 team of Dale Earnhardt Jr. into the shop with the No. 48 team of five-time defending Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson already is paying huge dividends, with the chance for more payouts and reciprocation in the immediate and long-term future.

"If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed, that will be it. We will follow him across the line with sparks and fire a-blazing."

--CHAD KNAUS

Johnson won his first race of the season and the 54th of his 10-year Sprint Cup career by the slimmest of margins Sunday -- .002 seconds. That tied the record for the closest margin of victory since electronic scoring was introduced into the sport, and Johnson knew it could not have been accomplished without the pushing assistance provided for him all day long by Earnhardt in the two-car draft that now seems here to stay in restrictor-plate races at both Talladega Superspeedway and Daytona International Speedway.

So Johnson drove up alongside Earnhardt afterward and made him an offer he ultimately couldn't refuse. He gave Earnhardt the checkered flag, which usually is reserved only for handling by the race winner.

"Man, I don't want that," Earnhardt said at first.

"Well, I have to give you something for the push and for working with me," Johnson replied.

"No, that's what teammates do," Earnhardt said.

Johnson would not be denied in his attempt at showing his appreciation. He smiled and insisted, "Take the damn flag. I'll give you the trophy, too."

Being the good teammate he is, Earnhardt finally relented. But he did put a cap on Johnson's generosity.

"No, I don't want the trophy. I'll take the flag, though," he finally said.

Teammates within the team

Keep in mind that Earnhardt has not won his own Cup race since June of 2008 at Michigan. He doesn't need reminding that was 101 races ago.

And the plan going into Talladega wasn't for Earnhardt to push Johnson to the win at the end. The plan simply was for them to work together and try to get one of the Hendrick cars to Victory Lane. The other two Hendrick teammates, Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, arrived with identical intentions.

"We pretty much just had the philosophy coming in this weekend, you know, don't leave your wingman," Gordon told reporters after the race.

And the four Hendrick cars didn't. Gordon and Martin worked in tandem throughout the day, as did Johnson and Earnhardt. Remember, it was only last year that the teams of Gordon and Johnson were housed together in the same building at the sprawling Hendrick complex, while the teams of Martin and Earnhardt were in the other.

Shortly after the end of Johnson's unprecedented fifth consecutive title run last November, team owner Rick Hendrick orchestrated a swap of three of the four crew chiefs of the teams involved. But there was more to it than simply that.

Steve Letarte, who had been Gordon's crew chief, stayed put in the building where he had worked for so long alongside Chad Knaus, Johnson's crew chief. But now Letarte was Earnhardt's crew chief and the team under him worked for the No. 88 Chevy as well. Lance McGrew, who had been Earnhardt's crew chief operating out of the other building, didn't have to move his office, either. He stayed put but became Martin's crew chief on the No. 5 car, and Alan Gustafson, who had been working in that same building as Martin's previous crew chief, jumped over to Gordon's No. 24 team.

Essentially, what had been the 88-5 shop became the 24-5 building, and what had been the 24-48 building became the 48-88 shop.

The four Hendrick Cup teams will all tell you they operate as one. But the four teams are split between two buildings side-by-side at the Hendrick complex, and they also would admit that they operate most closely on a daily basis with the one team housed under the same roof as them and therefore that bond within the Hendrick bond is closer.

Knaus said he thought the new alliances started to show huge promise right off the bat this season, when Earnhardt won the pole for the season-opening Daytona 500.

"We have a collective group of guys at Hendrick Motorsports who work on our superpeedway program and they do a fantastic job of putting a very good product out there," Knaus said. "I think that definitely started to shine in Daytona when we were able to qualify with the 88 car on the pole and then we were able to bring some of that momentum back here for qualifying at Talladega."

It shone again when the Hendrick teams were the top four in qualifying for last Sunday's race, led by Gordon on the pole. But Knaus said it really paid off during the race when the four drivers were able to split into pairs and work so strongly together.

"You know, we have been working a while to try to get to where we could get the drivers to really commit to one another and work together, and I think it was really nice to see the 5 and 24 work together the way they did [Sunday]," Knaus said. "I thought it was nice to see the 48 and 88 work together. It made it a lot easier on Steve Letarte and myself to call the race when you have that kind of strategy going on.

"I think it was a good race for Jimmie and Dale to get a lot of experience working together and learning how the draft works and hopefully we can apply some of that to the race when we come back here in the fall. So it was a very collective effort on a lot of people's parts and it was really nice to see."

But first ...

Shortly after Sunday's race concluded, Knaus was overheard on the radio telling Earnhardt, "The next one is on us, brother." Well, of course, the next restrictor-plate race is Daytona in July, not Talladega in the fall.

And of course, you can never predict how these races are going to play out with any kind of real precision. Maybe Johnson will be in position to help Junior in Daytona, and maybe not.

And maybe Johnson will be as helpful and as selfless -- and, well, maybe not. That indeed may be the true definition of a real teammate. Last Sunday at Talladega, Earnhardt came over the radio earlier in the race and admitted that the 48-88 two-car tandem seemed to run faster whenever Johnson was in front, being pushed by Earnhardt -- and not the other way around.

That is sometimes a difficult concept for a driver to grasp, let alone admit and commit to in the middle of a frenzied race such as one at Talladega.

"I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie and I think we were the faster combination pushing that way," Earnhardt said after the race. "For some reason when I was leading I would drive off his nose and even running quarter throttle I would just get away from him and we couldn't stay together."

Johnson added: "He was committed, as was I, and it showed. Neither one of us was selfish and we worked as a group. And at the end, he felt like the 48 car leading was faster. We agreed."

These guys were so committed that at least once Earnhardt slowed down on pit road to make certain he could get hooked up with Johnson again. In this day and age where supposedly every second on pit road counts, it seemed bizarre.

It was, Johnson said later, a learning process.

"We had a plan coming into the race, and stuck to it and learned a lot as the event went on, really Junior and I did, on how we would communicate, on what runs we could make, how we could set them up, how we could pass, how to have the guy push and could cool his car," Johnson said. "Really there was a lot of learning that went on through all of the laps throughout the race.

"I'm so very proud of Chad and Stevie, and the growth of the 48-88 shop, and the way Junior and I worked together."

But next time, will it really be Earnhardt's turn to celebrate in Victory Lane, as Knaus promised?

"I think we take the exact same approach and see how it shakes out the end," Knaus said. "You have to be aware as to which situation is faster, and definitely [at Talladega] we would have been pushing the 88 car if Dale had not come on the radio and said, 'Hey, guys, I don't think we are fast enough the way we are right now; we need the 48 in front.' If we get to Daytona and the roles are reversed, that will be it. We will follow him across the line with sparks and fire a-blazing."

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.

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