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Johnson central to Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s rise

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AVONDALE, Ariz. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s first race victory with Hendrick Motorsports was a fuel-mileage nail-biter more than five years ago in Michigan, where he cut the engine on and off to save gas in the final laps, and coasted home on fumes. The triumph ended a 76-race winless skid for NASCAR's most popular driver, and when teammate Jimmie Johnson came to congratulate him in Victory Lane, Earnhardt could think of only one thing to say.

"I'm a winner," he told Johnson.

"I know you are," the then-two-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion replied.

There are many people who have helped fuel Earnhardt's resurgence, which began in earnest with a strong stretch run to last season, and reached a new high last weekend with the driver's second Daytona 500 championship. There's owner Rick Hendrick, who stood by Earnhardt during a disheartening start to his stint with NASCAR's best organization. There's crew chief Steve Letarte, who helped renew his driver's focus and confidence behind the wheel.

And there's Johnson, whose run of success has set the bar at Hendrick and elsewhere, and has become an unfailing friend to and supporter of Earnhardt since even before the teams of the two drivers were housed in the same facility on the Hendrick complex north of Charlotte, N.C.

"Jimmie has always been one of my biggest fans," said Earnhardt, a two-time winner at Phoenix International Raceway. "Even before we were in the same shop, you know? I've known him for a very long time, before he was a champion, when he was just getting starting, he was wondering what kind of motorhome to buy. It's been a long road for both of us. He enjoys seeing me do well, and I feel the same way about him. So we've got a great relationship. It's really great to be in the same shop together. We feed off of their success. I think they do the same with us. Hopefully, we can continue that."

They would seem an odd couple -- one a six-time champion whose legacy in NASCAR is already ironclad, the other the son of a seven-time champion who is still working to build a legacy of his own. Nothing drives the denizens of Junior Nation into fits quicker than their man finishing second behind Johnson, something that happened three times a season ago. But although their fan bases may exist at polar extremes, the two drivers are close, and have been since Earnhardt first met Johnson at the latter's second NASCAR Nationwide Series start, at Gateway International Raceway outside St. Louis in 1998.

Earnhardt won that event, on the way to the first of his back-to-back championships in that series. Johnson, driving then for owner Tad Geschickter, finished an anonymous 15th. When Earnhardt joined Hendrick prior to the 2008 campaign, the dynamic was very different -- suddenly Earnhardt was the one trying to find his footing, and Johnson was the established incumbent with a string of titles to his name. The reciprocal relationship between the two drivers, though, has never changed.

"With Junior, I always just kind of reached out to him and let him know I was there if he wanted to talk about race cars, the team or really anything for that matter," said Johnson, a four-time winner at Phoenix, site of Sunday's Sprint Cup Series event. "With his personality, if you're in his face a lot or telling him what you think or almost preaching to him -- telling him what he should do -- it's not going to work out.

"In some ways, I've tried to lead by example and just do my thing. He is a very, very observant guy -- especially with what goes on in our shop. That's taken me a while to pick up and understand, how much he pays attention to what I do, how I drive my car, the things I'm interested in, things I focus on. And then being there and answering questions. From there, he has done the rest on his own. Between he and Steve with the relationship they have -- we may have been a carrot out there for the 88 in some respects, but the hard work those two have put in and that team has put in has put them where they are today."

Johnson's influence on Earnhardt was evident even this week, when the six-time champ finally convinced his teammate to join the social media network Twitter. But the real game changer came following the 2010 season, when -- on the heels of Johnson's fifth championship, no less -- Hendrick shuffled his race programs, putting Letarte at the helm of the No. 88 and placing Earnhardt and Johnson together in a combined 48/88 shop. Earnhardt had just come off a 21st-place finish in points, and the tactic seemed a simple one -- to hope some of Johnson's success rubbed off on his new stablemate. It took some time, but along the way Johnson and Earnhardt were able to build a day-to-day rapport that enhanced the relationship they had already.

"Before that, I was always there for him, but I didn't have the opportunity to connect and talk at the level we do now," said Johnson, who this season is trying to tie the record of seven premier-series titles shared by Richard Petty and Earnhardt Jr.'s father. "Being in the same shop has allowed that to happen. He and I have been friends for a lot of years, well before either of us were racing in (the top division of) NASCAR. I think the time and history there kind of helps take down some of the walls and lets us communicate."

In the wake of his second Daytona 500 title, Earnhardt lauded the assistance of all his Hendrick teammates. He said he and Kasey Kahne have been friends since both started out, and he's known Jeff Gordon since his father -- who was a business partner with the four-time champion -- introduced the two at North Wilkesboro Speedway. But there's something about Johnson, and the way he carries himself and his professionalism in crisis situations, that clearly strikes a chord with Earnhardt, and makes him an even bigger believer in himself.

"I do feel I'm like as talented as he is. I think I am on the same level," Earnhardt said. "As a driver, you have to feel confident in yourself and believe in yourself. So I think I'd put myself up against anybody in the field. But I think we definitely have a good friendship. I enjoy seeing him have success, because I know where he came from and I know the kind of person he is, who he was, who he is now. I think he feels the same way. We've known each other a long time. A lot of things have happened in that period of time that I think allows us to have a lot of respect and appreciation for each other."

MORE:

READ: Earnhardt Jr. wins
wild Daytona 500

WATCH: Dale Jr.
in Victory Lane

WATCH: Danica, a dozen
others in Daytona pileup

READ: Official Daytona 500
race results

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