Sun Jul 03 12:15am EDT
The plan for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson was simple: stick together and push one another to the win in the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona, just as Junior had done to Johnson back in April at Talladega.
For most of the race, they did just that, pitting together and mostly hanging out in the back of the pack, biding their time for a final-laps push. But when teammate Jeff Gordon nearly wrecked, bringing out a caution with only three laps to go, Johnson came down pit road. Junior didn't.
Thinking his partner was behind him, Junior radioed to Johnson to talk about their strategy, only Johnson wasn't there.
"He pitted," Junior's crew chief Steve Letarte radioed back. "I don't agree with that," referring to the decision of Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus.
That left Earnhardt without a drafting partner, which at Daytona is an absolute must.
"Don't tell me to wait for nobody. I'm not waiting for anybody with two damn laps to go," Junior said.
Though the race was extended to another green-white-checker attempt, Junior and Johnson never got close to each other again, at least not until the very end when Earnhardt got collected in a final-turn wreck. He finished 19th; Johnson wound up 20th.
"I don't know," Junior said after the race when asked about the differing strategies. "I'm driving my car, doing what I am told and they decided to do something different. I can't run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn race car. I'm just doing what I'm told out there. I
After the race, Johnson took to Twitter to defend his team's strategy against an apparent attack from an irate Junior Nation:
I didn't leave Jr hanging, you people are crazy. When my crew tells me to pit, I pit. Steve and Chad sort out the details
And if you think either of us could have won from 25th, which is where we were at the caution, you're even more crazy.
Rarely, if ever, has Johnson been so defensive, at least not publically.
It is puzzling why Knaus would have called Johnson into pit. Tires were not an issue and neither was fuel.
As a result, both drivers took a hit in the points standings, but since Johnson has that Talladega win to his credit, it hurts Junior a lot more. Just two weeks after being third in the points, Earnhardt has fallen to seventh and is 36 points ahead of Ryan Newman for the final non-wild card Chase spot.
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