Union 76: Atlanta win puts Jimmie Johnson in special place with Dale Earnhardt

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When he was younger, when he was just Jimmie Johnson instead of a six-time Sprint Cup champion, he used to argue, as brothers do, about various topics.

When it came to racing, Jimmie Johnson was a Jeff Gordon fan and his younger brother, Jarit, was a Dale Earnhardt fan.

“The banter we had back and forth through all of it was just fun,’’ Jimmie Johnson said. “I guess it’s just what all of our fans do day in and day out. They pick their driver and have their rivalries internally in their own house.

“A lot of fun memories of picking on my brother, but he won a lot, so it was tough to always have the upper hand.’’

Sunday, Jimmie Johnson tied Earnhardt with his 76th career series win, moving into a tie for seventh on NASCAR’s all-time victory list. Cale Yarborough ranks sixth with 83 career wins.

“I knew this day was coming,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said of Johnson’s historic win. “I’m certainly glad that I got to run second today.

“I think dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed competing against him. Knowing dad and knowing Jimmie’s character, they would have gotten along tremendously and dad would have thought the world of him.

“He said he felt the same way about Jeff (Gordon) when Jeff came in. He had nothing but awesome things to say about Jeff when Jeff was a rookie and they ended up becoming great friends and working together in businesses away from the racetrack and doing things together, so they definitely trusted each other, but they’re definitely tough competitors on the track. But Jimmie, how can you not like Jimmie?  He’s just a good guy that never stepped over the line with anything he’s ever said or anything he’s ever did, so I think it’s awesome to praise him.’’

Johnson celebrated his accomplishment by driving past the stands with his left hand out the door and three fingers raised.

“I kind of forgot that that win was 76 and then it hit me after I had taken the checkered flag and was doing my victory lap, so I had to come back around and certainly wanted to pay respect to Dale,’’ Johnson said.

The moment also was meaningful to car owner Rick Hendrick.

“You know, I never thought when I got in the sport I’d win 76 wins with anybody altogether, and to have Jeff do it and now Jimmie tie him,’’ Hendrick said. “I think when you look at Jimmie’s career and you look at how quick he’s gotten to 76 and he’s got six championships, I think you’ve got to say that he’s one of the best that’s ever been in the sport.’’

Said Earnhardt of Johnson: “I don’t have a problem calling him the best of this generation.’’

Johnson got the chance to tie Earnhardt’s victory total because of a gusty call by crew chief Chad Knaus, who had Johnson make his final green-flag pit stop well before the rest of the field.

“I really felt like that was going to hurt us, and late in the run I assumed Kevin (Harvick) would just run me back down,’’ Johnson said. “You just know he’s coming. You’re staring in the mirror and wondering where he’s at, and then also wondering if Chad was telling me the truth about lap times and the gap back to him, and it all worked out.’’

Harvick never did. Knaus’ decision worked as planned.

“It was a gamble for sure,’’ Knaus said of when to pit Johnson for the final time under green. “We hadn’t gone that far yet on a set of tires. We were trying to figure out what to do. We were chatting about it, myself and my engineers, who do a great job, and we could have easily just hung out and finished third, but we weren’t going to pass those guys, so we had to do something.

“So it was just a matter of how early to pit because if we didn’t pit early enough, if we only pitted just a couple laps earlier than everybody else, it would have pulled the rest of them down with us, so we had to make it to where we did it to where it would make them uncomfortable and not willing maybe to take that risk.’’

And that gave Johnson this special win.

“I think the gamble that Chad made puts it in a special category in the fact that we were able to hold on and get there,’’ Johnson said. “And then obviously the fact that it’s my 76th and tying Dale, I don’t know if it’s bigger than my first win, but it’s right there with it.’’