Earnhardt-Johnson Bond Stronger Than You Think

JR & JJ

Some things aren’t what they seem . Remember how it was with Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Jeff Gordon. To Earnhardt fans, Gordon was a girly man; a mere boy; a driver more fit for the “hoity toidy” world of open wheel than the rough and tumble world of NASCAR. no doubt, The Intimidator’s jokes that called the “Wonder Boy’s” manhood into question only further fueled it. It gave off a perception that the hero of the blue collar set despised fresh faced youth with California roots.

The truth is, Earnhardt enjoyed messing with all his rivals, including Gordon. Like most pranksters, it was the seven-time champion’s way of saying he actually liked the kid. Years later, Gordon as much as said that while they competed fiercely on the track, they enjoyed a solid relationship off of it. The rivalry was played up among the fans, and the reality ended being far different than fan perception.

Fast forward to today. After a rapid rise to success, the champion’s son endured a protracted dry spell. On the other hand, a driver with a far different persona grabbed the bull by the horns and never let go. for fans of Dale Earnhardt Jr.- whom he’ll be the first to admit started as fans of his legendary father- Jimmie Johnson was another Jeff Gordon type. Joining this duo at Hendrick Motorsports took a lot of getting used to for Junior Nation, so much so that some perceived that the new golden boy got the cream off HMS top, and that Earnhardt was more of a red-headed step-child, getting the dregs.

That kind of talk has eased up after Earnhardt enjoyed a racing renaissance in 2014, a year in which his dominant teammate appeared to take a couple of hits of kryptonite. Perhaps as time has gone on, “The Nation” has developed a grudging respect for “Six Time.”

As Earnhardt revealed a more emotional side of himself Sunday, he also divulged his own feeling towards Johnson. “Maybe not everybody out in the world knows it.  Jimmie is a better person than he is a teammate.  He’s a great teammate, an amazing guy, great family man, great friend.  We’ve been friends for a really long time, before we ever worked together.” Huh? Yes sir.

” I feel fortunate to be able to work with someone who makes my work easier.  He does.  He makes my job easier.  He’s an easy guy to work with.  All the other guys in the shop feel that way” he added. ” He’s won and been so successful, but he’s really remained grounded, real approachable, easygoing individual.  I think that’s remarkable and I appreciate that about him.”

Much of Sunday afternoon’s talk revolved around Johnson owed it to Earnhardt to allow him the win at Talladega. After all, it was the same place, in the not so bygone era of tandem racing at restrictor plate tracks that the 88 pushed the 48 to victory in the spring of 2011. That feeling has simmered long enough that some may have opined the favor was overdue.

The two-time champion of what is now known as the Xfinity Series has a different take ” Yeah, I don’t know how many times I’ve actually pushed him to a win.  My fans maybe feel like it’s three or four times, but I think it was really only once.” He says, “They are very critical of Jimmie.  I’ve sensed that and read that as well.  He takes it in stride.  He does really well with that criticism.”

Actually, it’s Earnhardt who almost seems to feel he owes Johnson something. ” I think I’m fortunate to be his teammate because I’ve certainly become a better driver being around him, learning from him.  You got to be open-minded to everything around you.  He’s certainly helped me improve.”

Friendships in the garage among competitors who are teammates are a complex thing. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards could tell you a thing or two about that. Should Sunday’s victory be a sign of things to come, this friendship might well be tested down the homestretch of the chase.

Behind all the made up headlines and conspiracy theories are two drivers who treat each other like men and professionals. Though its hard as a fan of one to see the other so dominate the sport, the fact is one has been good for the other. If one takes home the championship trophy, you can be sure the other will be there with a congratulatory hug.