NASCAR notebook: Earnhardt praises Johnson after Atlanta win

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[February 29, 2016]  By Reid Spencer, NASCAR Wire Service
 Distributed by The Sports Xchange
 HAMPTON, Ga. -- It didn't dawn on race runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. right away that Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson had tied his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., for seventh on the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series all-time victory list.

But Johnson's fifth victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway, in Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, was the 76th of his career, and now he and Earnhardt Sr. will share that mark -- until Johnson wins No. 77.

"It was awesome," said Earnhardt, who in 2007 had watched another soon-to-be teammate, Jeff Gordon, tie and exceed the 76-victory mark. "We talked about it. I told him on a couple occasions that when he tied daddy, he'd better say something cool, and he'd better tell them that it's awesome for him to tie him, because I know Jeff had the (No. 3) flag and all that, so that was awesome when your competitors and peers recognize your father like that.

"I knew this day was coming, but I didn't know it until we got out of the car. I'm glad, if he's going to win and tie that record, I'm certainly glad that I got to run second today."

Though the driving styles of Johnson and Earnhardt Sr. aren't comparable (Earnhardt was vastly more aggressive), Earnhardt Jr. nevertheless was lavish in his praise of his teammate.

"I don't have a problem calling him the best of this generation, even as a competitor of his and having to go out there and race against him," Earnhardt said. "Obviously, he will credit his crew chief (Chad Knaus) and his team.

"That all has been real consistent throughout his career, and they do deserve some credit, but Jimmie is just a phenomenal talent."

--New aero package gets rave reviews

For a race with a mere three cautions, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found Sunday's event with the new low-downforce competition package exhilarating.

"I loved it," Earnhardt said. "We were sliding around and driving the hell out of the car. I had a blast! I had some good races there on the track with the No. 2 (Brad Keselowski) and the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) and a bunch of guys. Man, it was so much fun.

"And I post old pictures online all the time of the '80s and '90s, and that's when racing was racing. That's when it was good. That's what they saw today."

Ninth-place finisher Brad Keselowski echoed Earnhardt's sentiments.

"I loved the way the cars drive," said Keselowski, who had the top-finishing Ford. "I understand that it takes more than my opinion to make the sport go round, but I thought it was awesome."

Carl Edwards, a long-time advocate of the new aerodynamic package, would like to see NASCAR take even more downforce away.

"They just need to keep taking more," said Edwards, who drove his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota to a fifth-place result. "This is real racing. We're driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they're worth. I'm worn out. That's a tough race and just a lot of fun.

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"I just can't thank NASCAR enough and Atlanta -- don't ever pave this place -- it's a perfect race track. I hope the fans enjoyed the show. The thing is, just know that in that car we're driving as hard as we can."

--Kyle Busch turns last-place star into third-place finish

It was an uncharacteristically patient Kyle Busch who started from 39th place Sunday's Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Throughout the race, Busch worked his way methodically through the field without using up his equipment, and after the first caution finally occurred on Lap 210, he restarted fourth on Lap 218 with a strong chance at an excellent finish.

On the race's final restart in overtime, Busch believed he had a realistic opportunity to win from the third position, but Jimmie Johnson surged ahead and stayed there until the final caution froze the field.

"Once I cleared the 4 (Kevin Harvick) getting into Turn 1, I thought I had a really good shot at being able to overtake the 48 (Johnson)," Busch said of the decisive restart. "I tried running a little bit higher than him to see if I could get some momentum off (Turn) 2, and I never really got any. We got down to (Turn) 3 and I was like, 'Well, the only opportunity I have is to try to go out of his wake and not follow him,' and when I did that, man, it landed on the splitter and just plowed up the race track.

"Kind of crazy there when all that went down, but great day for us. (Crew chief) Adam Stevens and the guys did a great job. What else could I say? They fought hard to battle back from being at the tail end and got a good points day out of it, so we'll go on next week and go to Vegas and see if we can't score a win in the hometown."

In fact, it was an excellent points day for Busch, who leads the series standings by three points over Martin Truex Jr.

[ 2016 Thomson Reuters. All rights reserved.]

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