The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly
The Talladega Superspeedway has played host to countless real life dramas. Even if you’re one of NASCAR’s best who is used to having good days, ‘Dega will serve up a hearty dose of the bad and the ugly.
For Jimmie Johnson, it started out pretty good. If nothing else, it started fast, as he won the pole for his first outing at NASCAR’s longest track in April of 2002. Then when the series rolled back into town for the second race in October, Johnson found himself leading the field to green yet again when qualifying was rained out and the field was set by points. What makes the repeat even more impressive was that Johnson, a rookie, was in the points lead that late in the season.
As fast at the No. 48 was in qualifying, Team Lowe’s had some bad experiences on raceday in their first handful of outings. In Johnson’s first eight Talladega races, he only finished in the top ten twice.
Both visits to Alabama in 2005 could be considered downright ugly, as Johnson was the catalyst of “The Big One” (which is stock car speak for 20 cars headed for the junkyard) in both races. Amidst some harsh criticism from his fellow drivers, Johnson learned from his mistakes and came back in 2006 stronger than ever.
After capturing his first restrictor plate win in the season opening Daytona 500, Johnson headed back to Talladega in search of redemption. As you can see in the video below, it was a hornet’s nest at the front of the field with four laps to go…
After leading only three laps all day, Johnson got his masterful redemption and won his second straight restrictor plate race. "I got into some situations last year where I may have been too aggressive," Johnson said. "I took that philosophy into the Daytona 500, and it paid off. Today again I stayed really cautious. I probably was hung out more times than I wanted to be. It paid off."
Were that not enough, Johnson received word in victory lane that his first nephew had been born just as he crossed the finish line. Jubilated, he said, “I guess I’m an uncle! That’s hard to believe.”
In typical Talladega fashion, the ugly reared its head again in the fall race of that same year. Coming to the checkers, Hendrick teammate Brian Vickers was going to give Johnson a shove to victory. Unfortunately, his timing was a bit off…
With the 2006 mishap long in the rear view, Johnson and his Hendrick team treated the racing world to some good times in 2011 when he and teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. put on quite a show…
After tying for the closest finish in NASCAR history, .002 second, Johnson gave all the credit to the help he received from Dale, even giving him the checkered flag on his way to victory lane.
In his post-race press conference, Johnson talked about the exchange. “I handed it to him, he said, ‘Man, I don't want that!’ And I said, ‘Well, I gotta give you something for the push and working with me!’ He said, ‘Nah, that's what teammates do.’ So I smiled and I said, ‘Take the damn flag.’”
Earnhardt Jr. reluctantly accepted, and said even though he didn't think he deserved it, he'd find a place for it in his trophy case. "I appreciate it and I'll get him to sign it. It'll be the one checkered flag I got that ain't mine."
In the October 2014 race, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. found themselves in need of each other again, this time to advance to the next round of the then new elimination style Chase format. In a twist of fate only seen at Talladega, Johnson led 84 laps, easily the most of any driver, in route to a 24th place finish. Neither he nor Earnhardt would advance that day with Dale coming in 31st.
"It's so hard to win one of these races," said Johnson. "You can't come in here and say, 'I'm going to dominate Talladega and win the race.' We dominated it. We just didn't lead the lap that counted."
That statement pretty much sums up Talladega: a real life “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.”