MARTINSVILLE, VA – We interrupt your regularly scheduled NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup to bring you an important message from Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Okay, it’s not like America’s most popular driver ever went anywhere. But by winning the Goody’s 500 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, Earnhardt served notice that even if he’s no longer in the running for this year’s Chase, he’s still championship material.
He got the grandfather clock trophy he has coveted for years on Sunday. He’ll just have to wait a little bit longer for the big prize that goes to the series champion.
Earnhardt held off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon over the final five laps to secure a 1-2 finish for Rick Hendrick on the ten-year anniversary weekend of the tragic plane crash that took the lives of Hendrick’s son Ricky and nine other team personnel and family members.
Although NASCAR’s revised Chase format means Dale Jr. can’t win this year’s title, his win at Martinsville was far from meaningless.
“This is very special for me,” he told the appreciative crowd from Gatorade Victory Lane. “I started coming here in the early ‘80s when I was just a kid and never missed many races here.
“I always wanted to win here. I grew up in a house with a grandfather clock (the unique trophy presented to winners Martinsville races for 50 years) and I always wanted one. I get to take one home today. I just wish I could have done it sooner.
“I know this is a team deal, but this is very personal for me.”
Crew chief Steve Letarte verified just how much a win at NASCAR’s oldest track means to the modern-era driver who has more respect and appreciation for the sport’s history than any of his competitors.
“It’s funny being around Dale hearing him talk about that clock. He brings it up any time Martinsville is in the conversation,” Letarte revealed. “He talks about it a lot. He has that twinkle in his eye and I know that he really wanted that clock.
“I was fortunate enough to have one [won with Jeff Gordon in 2005] and it was great to work with Dale to get him one today.”
Earnhardt emerged in front after a typically messy Martinsville race. There were 15 cautions for 105 laps and accidents twice caused the race to be red-flagged.
The No. 88 Chevrolet led five times for 79 laps, but what looked like an easy cruise to victory was made more difficult with 10 laps to go when Kyle Larson’s wreck brought out the red flag and made crew chiefs like Letarte earn their money.
Earnhardt led the majority of the field into the pits for four tires during the subsequent caution and lined up fifth for the restart with five laps to go. Three drivers (Tony Stewart, David Ragan and Ricky Stenhouse) gambled on old tires, while Clint Boyer gained track position with a two-tire stop.
The inside lane was much faster all day on restarts, and Earnhardt quickly worked his way up to second place. He dispatched Stewart, who held on for fourth place at the flag, and held off Gordon by 0.344 second at the flag.
“It was right there in front of me for the taking, and I was able to hold onto it,” Earnhardt said after averaging 70.725 mph for the 500 laps. “I thought Jeff was going to get there, but we ran clean and smooth laps to the end.
“It’s a good group of guys and we really work well together,” he added. “The pit stops did it today, man. The car was right there and when we needed to run hard, we could run hard. When we needed to save, we could save. So the car and the guys on pit road made the job a lot easier.”
Gordon made things a bit easier for Earnhardt and everyone else when he was caught speeding on pit road on Lap 192. The four-time Cup Series champion knew it even before he was penalized and freely admitted it was his fault.
Although the infraction occurred before the halfway point of the race, I asked Gordon if he felt like that was the difference between winning and finishing second on Sunday.
“I think it did; I personally think it did,” he replied. “But it was a great comeback.
“I put us in a really bad position,” Gordon added. “It was a silly mistake. I had to make it up to this team. Luckily they had great pit stops and the cautions fell pretty much the way we wanted them to and needed them to. We were able to claw our way back through there and stay out of trouble. That was pretty clutch.”
Gordon had the consolation of being the best-placed Chase driver on a day when several of his seven championship rivals had significant problems.
Matt Kenseth’s spin took out Kevin Harvick, who spent a long time in the garage and wound up 33rd. Brad Keselowski suffered a driveline failure that triggered a multi-car crash and finished only two places higher.
Ryan Newman quietly emerged with a third place finish, with Joey Logano fifth, a recovering Kenseth sixth, and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin a disappointed eighth after leading 68 laps. Carl Edwards was an uncompetitive 20th.
But the Chase took a back seat on this day to Earnhardt, and the emotional lift he provided his team at a venue that will always be bittersweet for Rick Hendrick and his family and employees.
“Coming here and winning here at this particular track means a lot to this whole organization,” Junior remarked. “I’ve come to know how much all those people are missed and I’ve seen how that tragedy affected the organization.
“They come here and really try to get this win every year. It’s a difficult weekend, but I really wanted to be victorious,” he continued. “I watched all the other drivers win here – Jeff and Jimmie [Johnson], and now I’m able to put my name on that list. I’ve come close here before. I’ve had some quick cars here that should have won, but the driver didn’t get it done. Everything needs to fall into place here and that happened today.”
It may not be his last. Earnhardt’s four-win 2014 campaign is his most competitive season in ten years, and even though Letarte is heading to the television booth next year, all signs point to the No. 88 team remaining a force into the future.
“I definitely would put it as a successful year, but we kind of think more of the here and now and the Chase has been very disappointing,” said the driver. “I remember this team right around when we were winning at Pocono, they were confident and felt like they were at their best. Then in the Chase, it took all the mojo and excitement and pride out of those guys. It was unspoken, but everyone was very disappointed where we were at coming into this weekend.
“This reminds the team, more than myself, that what we have is a good thing,” Earnhardt added. “Everybody is staying together except the crew chief, which kind of surprised me because I figured some other dominoes would fall.
“So this win reminded the team what they’re capable of. We can accomplish some really good things and win more races. We can win a championship. We just need the breaks to come our way.”