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Johnson wins wild finish at Talladega, Hendrick teammates in top eight

TALLADEGA, Ala. – Jimmie Johnson, with help from teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., gave Hendrick Motorsports a storybook ending in Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Talladega Superspeedway. The duo slipped by teammates Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin, who also were battling for the checkered flag.

Johnson picked up the win, his second at the 2.5-mile superspeedway, while his teammates finished inside the top eight. With six cars fighting for the checkered flag, Gordon scored the third-place result, while Earnhardt took fourth. Martin finished eighth. This is the 196th Cup victory for Hendrick Motorsports.

Johnson’s margin of victory was .002 seconds, which matches the closest margin of victory since the inception of electronic scoring in May 1993. That mark was set first at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway on March 16, 2003.

Johnson handed the checkered flag to Earnhardt as a way of saying thank you, when he pulled his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet into Victory Lane. Earnhardt cheerfully congratulated his teammate.

“Man, I thought we were in trouble,” Johnson said afterward about the finish. “Something happened with two (laps to go), and we got disconnected. I had a really tough time hearing Junior on the radio, so I didn’t know what he was saying or what he needed. But we got hooked up and rolling and all of a sudden, there were only two groups in front of us.

“They were worried about each other and left that bottom open. We had some big momentum on our side and off we went. This (Nos.) 48/88 shop is awesome. I can’t thank these guys enough. I can’t thank Junior enough. He made the decision that my car was faster leading. He was more worried about the team having success than anything, and he’s responsible for this win today.”

Johnson, who now owns 54 career wins and moves into a tie with Lee Petty for ninth on the all-time wins list, improves to second in the driver standings.

Earnhardt improves to third after finishing third in his No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet at Talladega.

“I was more comfortable pushing Jimmie, and I think we were the faster combination that way,” Earnhardt said. “For some reason, when I was leading, I would drive off his nose, and even running quarter-throttle, I couldn’t stay with him. We got clear of the pack coming to the white (flag), and I told Jimmie not to lift no matter what.

“I tried to stay in the back of him without wrecking him. When we got on the inside of Mark, I lost the nose and doored Mark and about wrecked myself. But somehow or another I was able to give Jimmie enough of a push to get through there. I’m proud to be driving for Hendrick Motorsports. We all finished great today, and that’s a tribute to the craftsmanship we have back in Charlotte (N.C.).”

Gordon, the pole sitter for Sunday’s event, partnered with Martin throughout the race. The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet believed afterward that he and Martin might have taken the lead a bit too early coming into the white flag lap.

“We were maintaining there (against the Nos. 33 and 29 cars),” said Gordon, who now ranks 13th in the driver standings. “It was kind of a drag race, and that opened the slot for the guys to get momentum and get beside us. We could have maybe tried to block it, but I’m happy with our (No. 24) Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet. Mark was an awesome teammate today, and there at the end, the fans couldn’t have asked for a better show.”

The momentum of the wild finish affected Martin, who crossed the finish line eighth in his No. 5 CARQUEST Auto Parts/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet. He now ranks 14th in the driver standings.

“It’s crazy man, and I was running there and I finally said, ‘Who’s leading?’ because I thought Jeff might be,” Martin said. “I couldn’t see. The No. 99 (Carl Edwards) and somebody else were in front of him. I could never see him. I never saw him. So, I’m pushing Jeff and I’m thinking, maybe we’re leading. That was with about five (laps) to go. So it was a great effort, and I just really want to comment (crew chief) Lance McGrew and everyone on this CARQUEST Auto Parts/GoDaddy.com team.”

For Hendrick Motorsports, Sunday’s race opened as dramatically as it ended. Gordon, Johnson, Martin and Earnhardt qualified one-two-three-four for the 500-mile event, making Hendrick Motorsports just the third team in Sprint Cup history to qualify in the first four starting positions. This feat previously was accomplished by owner Pete DePaolo in 1956 at Charlotte (N.C.) Motor Speedway and Jack Roush in 2005 at Auto Club Speedway.

When the green flag first was waved for Sunday’s race, the Hendrick Chevrolets were lined up perfectly for drafting at the 2.5-mile superspeedway. Earlier in the practice session, Gordon had spent time drafting with Martin, while Johnson and Earnhardt were working together. So it worked out neatly that Gordon was the pole sitter and Martin was behind him in third. Johnson started from the outside pole and was followed by Earnhardt in fourth.

Each of the four drivers had led at least one lap by the halfway point of the race, with Johnson recording the most at 14 laps. Earnhardt tallied 11 laps led, while Gordon paced the field nine times and Martin did so once.

As the race unfolded, the Hendrick quartet maintained position inside the top 20 and waited to make a late-race charge. The final caution flag of the race was thrown with under 20 laps to go, and the teammates decided they were ready. At the time, Gordon and Martin were running fifth and sixth, respectively, while Johnson and Earnhardt were running 13th and 14th, respectively.

With 11 laps to go, Gordon and Martin pushed their way to the front, and Johnson and Earnhardt followed closely behind. The Nos. 48/88 tagteam took advantage of the fact that Gordon and Martin were contending with competitors on the outside line. Johnson and Earnhardt ran the bottom line on the white-flag lap to slip in and take the win.

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