Once upon a time, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were like blood brothers. Linked together, literally, chasing speed and the finish line as one.

To the victor went the spoils. In Earnhardt's case, it was a pallet of beer for pushing Hendrick Motorsports teammate Johnson to victory at Talladega.

But a few months later, any beer that's left will only chase down the misery of what happened last weekend at the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona International Speedway.

Johnson left Earnhardt hanging on the final laps of the race, after crew chief Chad Knaus called Johnson into the pits. It left Earnhardt without a vital playmate in the tandem racing game, as drivers need to be linked in pairs to obtain maximum speed.

Earnhardt finished 19th, giving him yet another reason to despise this style of racing. The scenario will make for interesting dynamics between Johnson and Earnhardt when they are likely to link up again in Talladega in October.

Johnson is already trying to make nice, but will Earnhardt be as understanding?

"When my crew tells me to pit, I pit," Johnson posted on Twitter. "Steve and Chad sort out the details. And if you think either of us could have won from 25th, which is where we were at the caution, you're even more crazy. … Many thanks to the sane Jr nation and to all of my loyal 48 fans. #yourock."

Earnhardt's reaction: "I'm driving my car, doing what I am told, and they decided to do something different. I can't run the whole damn thing from the seat of the damn racecar. I'm just doing what I'm told out there. I don't know how that affected us, if it did at all. It was just a foolish race."

A lot of fans, and probably some drivers, share that sentiment. Teaming up goes against the nature of competitive racing. Guys have to be put together in order to stay hooked up. How foolish is that?

Most drivers aren't complaining, dismissing the dynamics of tandem racing as one of those "it is what it is" scenarios.

For Earnhardt, though, this could turn out to be more than philosophical and strategic crossfire.

Now in seventh place in the Sprint Cup standings, Junior could be squeezed out of a berth in the Chase if he doesn't snag a victory in the next nine races before the field is set. Earnhardt and other guys on the bubble could be in trouble of not gaining one of the top 12 qualifying spots because the last two slots will go to the drivers positioned between 11th and 20th place with the most victories.

If Earnhardt misses out, don't be surprised to see a few ribs and baked beans flying at Johnson and Knaus at the next family barbecue.

gdiaz@tribune.com