Who's More Disappointed After Elimination: Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jimmie Johnson?

Joe Menzer@@OneMenzFeatured ColumnistOctober 21, 2014

Jimmie Johnson (left) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks in the Sprint Cup garage.
Jimmie Johnson (left) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. talks in the Sprint Cup garage.Jeff Curry/Getty Images

Four races still remain in the 2014 NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup, but this year's championship hopes are history for Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Who should be sweating that more?

The answer, my friends, was blowing in the wind in the interviews both drivers gave following their dual ouster from the Chase in last Sunday's Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Despite leading twice for a total of 31 laps, which worked the crowd into a frenzy at the track where he had won five previous times in his career (but not since 2004), Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 31st after spinning following contact with Greg Biffle late in the race. Afterward, Earnhardt actually chuckled a bit as he said the following of his Chase demise, per FoxSports.com.

"There's probably been worse things. I'm not retiring or anything, so we're gonna try next year. We've had a good season and got a lot to be looking forward to. I'm definitely not going to get too tore up about it. We didn't run well."

Johnson, meanwhile, led a race-high 84 laps and appeared to have the car to beat most of the afternoon at Talladega. He got to the front early and stayed there, aggressively blocking several attempts to pass him during his reign out front—even though those kinds of moves usually are reserved for the closing laps.

But Johnson knew leading the most laps at Talladega doesn't guarantee victory. In fact, Sunday's race was the 10th in a row at the track where the driver who led the most laps was unable to celebrate in Victory Lane.

"We went down swinging," Johnson told FoxSports.com afterward. "We had a chance and came up short. We have to make the best of '15. We have a chance to finish fifth in points (this season), which would mean the world to me. The worst I've finished is sixth in points, so it's not time to put our feet up. We need to finish strong and try to be in the top five."

So, who's more disappointed? Obviously, both drivers and their teams are, and it's hard to quantify that from the outside looking in.

But since that's where the rest of the world stands, it sure seems like Johnson is more disappointed—when, in fact, it should be the other way around.

Therein may lie the secret to success for Johnson, who is the defending Sprint Cup champion and was seeking to make history with what would have been a record-tying seventh title overall. That has previously been achieved in NASCAR history only by two of the sport's greatest drivers, Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Dale Jr.'s late father.

Both Junior and Johnson talked about giving it their all over these last four races, and there is no doubt they will.

Both talked about coming back strong next year, but for Johnson, there is a sense of resolve backed by history that indicates he definitely will. For some reason, he and crew chief Chad Knaus seemed just a little off all year except for a four-race stretch in May and June when Johnson won three of four races in the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet.

There was a time when the No. 88 car of Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 48 of Johnson were as fast as anyone.
There was a time when the No. 88 car of Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 48 of Johnson were as fast as anyone.Chris Graythen/Getty Images

These two do not want to go out like this. Not this season. Not ever. And definitely not when they finally decide to end their long-term partnership.

Losing really bothers Johnson and Knaus. It eats at them. This season and their mere three victories together carries the unmistakable stench of failure to them.

Earnhardt Jr., on the other hand, seems quite satisfied with his season—and on a certain level, he should be. He won the season-opening Daytona 500 and swept both Pocono races at a track where he historically had struggled. 

The three races Junior won represented the most he'd captured in a season since winning a career-high six a decade ago while still driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. In his final season with crew chief Steve Letarte, who is leaving the No. 88 pit box for the NBC broadcast booth beginning next year, it seemed the stars finally had aligned for NASCAR's chosen son and 11-time Most Popular Driver as voted by the fans.

But while Earnhardt avoided his usual summer swoon (see: Pocono races), he faded down the stretch leading into the Chase and then could not regain lost momentum once it commenced. He finished in the top 10 in only one of the six Chase races before his elimination, and that was a ninth-place finish at New Hampshire in the first round. In his last four Chase efforts, he finished 17th, 39th, 20th and 31st.

Now Earnhardt will start over next season with a new crew chief in Greg Ives, who has been tabbed to replace the departing Letarte. There is a sense that perhaps this was Earnhardt's last, best shot at grabbing his first championship.

And yet he seems satisfied, which is why he may never win one.

Johnson, on the other hand, clearly has unfinished business left on the table and has made it obvious that he won't quit until he at least makes a much stronger, more focused—simply better—run at claiming his piece of NASCAR history. Heck, he's already found a new goal to focus on for the remaining four races of this season, wanting to finish fifth in points. The fire burns in his belly still.

That may explain why Johnson seems to be the one more disappointed now—and more likely to be the one left as the last driver standing as champion again in a not-too-distant future season.

Unless otherwise noted, all information was obtained firsthand.

Joe Menzer has written six books, including two about NASCAR, and now writes about it and other sports for Bleacher Report while also covering NASCAR as a writer and editor for FoxSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.


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