Then he realized what it really meant.
Johnson stuck his hand out of the No. 48 car, holding up three fingers.
It was his little tribute to the Intimidator.
Johnson used pit strategy and a late yellow to claim the 76th victory of his career Sunday, pulling even with the late Dale Earnhardt on the NASCAR career list.
Only six drivers have won more.
"This is special for sure," said Johnson, who began his Cup career shortly after Earnhardt was killed in a wreck on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. "There was a big void in my mind not having a chance to race against him. I was literally a handful of months away from having the opportunity. To tie him today, for me personally, gives me a little bit of attachment to the great Dale Earnhardt."
Kevin Harvick led 131 laps -- more than anyone else -- but ceded the lead after he made his last green-flag pit stop nine laps after Johnson. The No. 48 car made a quicker stop and wound up with about a 14-second lead, then watched it fade away as Harvick gave chase on newer tires.
Harvick was about five seconds behind when Ryan Newman spun on the front stretch with three laps to go, which brought out only the second yellow flag of the race and forced overtime. Everyone came to the pits for new tires, and Johnson returned to the track still leading. The victory was his when a crash on the backstretch -- the only wreck of the day -- took four cars out.
Johnson stuck three fingers out the window -- Earnhardt's car number -- on his victory lap. He never got to race the Intimidator, who died on a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.
"It's such an honor," Johnson said. "I had to throw a three out the window to pay respects to the man."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Kyle Busch back to the line to take second place in a poignant finish on the day Johnson pulled even with his father.
"I think Dad would have liked Jimmie as a person, but he certainly wouldn't have enjoyed competing against him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I don't think any of us -- I love when we race door to door, but when he goes out there and he spanks you, it's not a lot of fun.
"Knowing Dad and knowing Jimmie's character, they would have gotten along tremendously, and Dad would have thought the world of him."
Johnson credited crew chief Chad Knaus for calling the early pit stop, a strategy that allowed him to get past Harvick. The No. 48 Chevrolet came to the pits six laps ahead of everyone else.
"It was definitely a gutsy call," Johnson said. "The 4 car [Harvick] was awfully tough. It was going to take strategy to get by him."
For Harvick, it was another Atlanta heartache. He spun his tires on the final restart and wound up a disappointing sixth -- hardly indicative of the way he ran most of the race.
Harvick has led more than 100 laps in four of his past five races at the 1.54-mile trioval, but he hasn't won here since the spring event in 2001. That was just his third race after he took over at Richard Childress Racing following Earnhardt's death.
The cars set a blistering pace in the first test of a new aerodynamic package designed to promote more competitive racing. The first 210 laps were run under green before the first yellow finally came out for debris on the track.
After the restart, Harvick and Martin Truex went back and forth, exchanging the lead several times before Harvick started to pull away. It was a thrilling display, but in the end, it didn't matter. Harvick lost the lead in the pits, thereby allowing Johnson to claim his fifth Cup victory in Atlanta.
Kyle Busch, who posted the fastest time in qualifying but had to start from the back of the field after his car failed inspection, rallied to take third -- just ahead of his brother Kurt, who inherited the pole after his sibling's misfortune.
KENSETH PENALTY: Matt Kenseth lost two laps and any chance of winning when his pit crew was penalized for illegal fueling.
NASCAR caught a crew member placing a wedge wrench on the deck lid of the No. 20 car while fueling the car, a violation of the rule that prohibits him from performing "any adjustments or other pit stop procedures while the fuel can coupler is engaged."
Kenseth didn't come in immediately while his crew argued with NASCAR officials. He wound up being black-flagged, which kept him from being scored on one lap, then lost another lap when he came in for his drive-through penalty.
That knocked him all the way back to 32nd place. He finished 19th.
FILLING IN FOR SMOKE: Ty Dillon had a nondescript day while subbing for injured Tony Stewart in the No. 14 car. Looking to make a good impression one day after his 24th birthday, Dillon finished two laps down in 17th.
Stewart has missed the first two races of his farewell season while recovering from a back injury suffered in an all-terrain vehicle accident. He made a surprise appearance in Atlanta, but it is not known when he'll be able to resume racing.
Brian Vickers drove the No. 14 in the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 26th.
PERFECT WEATHER: Atlanta Motor Speedway didn't have to pay out for its perfect weather ticket guarantee. The weather was indeed perfect.
Even though the Atlanta race was held on its earliest date ever -- and has perennially been plagued by inclement weather -- the temperature when the green flag waved was an unseasonably warm 64 degrees, with a light breeze and clear, blue skies.
The crowd was estimated at 55,000, an increase over the previous year, but still a far cry from the track's glory days. In recent years, a significant amount of seating has been removed, which has reduced capacity from an estimated 124,000 to around 75,000.
Information from ESPN's Bob Pockrass and The Associated Press was used in this report.
Johnson tops field at Atlanta, matches Dale Sr. on wins list
Jimmie Johnson wins at Atlanta for his 76th victory in the Sprint Cup Series, tying Dale Earnhardt Sr. for seventh on the all-time wins list.