Jimmie Johnson won the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. got the checkered flag. Maybe they should go in the NASCAR record books as co-winners.
In a finish that matched the closest in Sprint Cup history, Johnson edged Clint Bowyer by about a foot to win a Talladega two-step yesterday — a victory that wouldn’t have been possible without a big push from Earnhardt.
Earnhardt gave up a chance to end a 101-race winless streak, selflessly agreeing to shove the No. 48 car of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate instead of vice versa in what was essentially a tag-team event.
“I can’t thank Junior enough,’’ Johnson said. “He made the decision that my car was faster leading. And the way these things are finishing up, the lead car’s going to get the win. . . . He was more worried about the team having a good performance than anything.’’
The official margin was .002 seconds, tied with Ricky Craven’s win at Darlington in 2003 for the closest since NASCAR went to electronic timing.
It came down to an eight-car sprint. Well, actually, four pairs of cars, with only the guys at the front of the duos having a chance to win the Aaron’s 499.
After laying back most of the day, the five-time series champion hugged the yellow line at the bottom of the track — flirting with a penalty — and pulled out his 54th career victory and first of the season.
“We were just the lucky guy at the end with a good run,’’ Johnson said. “We had some big mo on our side, and off we went.’’
He couldn’t have done it without Earnhardt, who was given the checkered flag by the winner.
“That just came to my mind,’’ Johnson said. “He was like, ‘Man, I don’t want that.’ But I told him, ‘I have to give you something for the push and working with me.’ He just said, ‘That’s what teammates do.’ ’’
Even though Earnhardt hasn’t won since 2008, he thought it was a no-brainer to get behind Johnson.
“If I couldn’t win the race, I wanted Jimmie to win the race, because I had worked with him all day and he is my teammate,’’ Earnhardt said.
There was a bit of dispute over Johnson’s winning move. He clearly touched the yellow line with his left tires, but appeared to be forced low by an attempted block from Hendrick teammates Jeff Gordon and pusher Mark Martin. NASCAR officials ruled it was a legal pass.
“I was not focused on where the yellow line was,’’ Johnson said. “I was more worried about causing a big pileup. Luckily, the 5 car [Martin] quit coming down. I don’t know where my left-side tires were, but I’m glad we’re not here worrying about that.’’
Johnson got a huge run coming out of the fourth turn, surged past Gordon and Martin coming through the trioval and edged Bowyer in a four-wide dash down the long finishing straightaway.
“What a bummer,’’ said Bowyer, who led a race-high 38 laps. “I saw him coming.’’
IndyCar — Mike Conway made a late pass on Ryan Briscoe to win the Grand Prix of Long Beach (Calif.), winning in just his third race since a horrific crash last year in the Indianapolis 500.
Formula One — Lewis Hamilton overcame a prerace mechanical drama involving a fuel leak to win a thrilling Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, passing Sebastian Vettel with five laps remaining.