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Different approach at 'Dega for Junior, Johnson

October 07, 2012, David Caraviello,

TALLADEGA, Ala. -- One is trying to finish a restrictor-plate event for the first time this season, the other is trying to wedge himself back into the Sprint Cup championship race. But Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. have one thing in common -- neither wants to wait too long to try to win this time around at Talladega Superspeedway.

This race a year ago essentially knocked Junior and Johnson out of the title hunt, when the Hendrick duo waited too long to try and work their way up from their safe spot near the back of the pack. The result was a 25th-place finish for NASCAR's most popular driver and a 26th-place finish for the five-time champion, which left both too far behind to challenge Tony Stewart for the championship.

"We're far enough behind really where we could start throwing some things out there and seeing what sticks."


"It felt unnatural to not want to try to go for the lead and try to run up front," said Earnhardt, a five-time winner at the Alabama track. "It felt like I was almost setting [myself] up for failure, because the idea of a race is to go up and drive toward the front and try to lead and try to run well. It seemed completely the opposite of what you grew up doing, and what your mentality should be like."

This time around, Johnson said, there's no plan -- he'll run wherever his pit strategy dictates, and try to minimize his risk over the course of the event. Changes in the cars' cooling systems, though, make it less likely that he'll attempt a last-gasp dash from the back on Sunday.

"The game has changed from where we were last year," Johnson said. "Last year at this time, we could push a lot longer. So we felt like we had speed in our back pocket, and if we worked together as a team, we could get there. With how hard it is to push because of the overheating issues, your opportunity to do that is a lot smaller. So I think it's a little different race than we had last fall."

Both Hendrick drivers have plenty at stake in Sunday's race. Johnson stands second in points, five behind Chase leader Brad Keselowski, but he has yet to finish a restrictor-plate event this season. The No. 48 car crashed out of both Daytona races, and suffered an engine failure at Talladega in the spring. Now in the thick of the championship race, Johnson is well aware of the need to get to the checkered flag this time around.

"I think [crew chief] Chad [Knaus] was throwing a statistic at me that we finish 25 percent of our restrictor-plate races, and we've crashed out of three," Johnson said. "So we're bound to finish one. I want to believe and buy into that. It's a good time of the year to finish a plate race. The thing I have a lot of faith in is how fast we've been on plate tracks. We've been very competitive."

So has Earnhardt, who has two top-10 results in three plate races this season, a runner-up finish in the Daytona 500 among them. Unlike Johnson, though, he's in a position where he needs to make up ground; in seventh place and 39 points behind Keselowski, he's in a much more desperate situation than his teammate. But Talladega, where anything can happen, seems a perfect place for that mentality.

"We're in a spot where we can just kind of let it all hang out and must kind of go for broke," Earnhardt said. "We're running as hard as we can, and we've not really performed as well as we have for the majority of the season. There's just something not quite there. We've been consistent but not running well enough to challenge these guys up front for the championship. So, we're far enough behind really where we could start throwing some things out there and seeing what sticks."

All the more reason to think you won't be seeing Hendrick cars hanging around in the back of their own choosing. "I don't want to be in that situation again, and I'm sure Jimmie doesn't, either," Earnhardt said. "We've talked about that, and I think we've kind of changed our approach over the last couple of plate races to avoid doing that again and being in that situation again."