It took him 30 attempts, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. is finally a winner at Martinsville.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. came away the big winner at the Martinsville Speedway on Sunday, topping the 43-car NASCAR Sprint Cup field in the grueling Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500. Driving the National Guard Chevrolet, he won for the first time at Martinsville and for the fourth time in 2014.
Taking on new tires with five laps to go made the difference, according to Earnhardt.
“Those pits stops made the difference made the difference,” Earnhardt said with substantial emotion in his voice. “I had to get underneath Tony (Stewart) on the restart, and I had the No. 24 behind me. We had to go real hard but the pit stops made the difference. When we had to run hard, the car was there."
I would have moved him for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind.
Gordon on if he got to Dale Jr.
“This is real special to me," he added. "I have been coming here since the early 80s. I always wanted to win here; I grew up in a house with a grand-father’s clock. I always wanted one, and now I get to take one home.”
Short track action
The highly competitive race on the half-mile track marked the start of the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Not unexpectedly, a swarm of yellow flags slowed the action and two major accidents stopped the race 15 times. There were also two red flags. Multiple drivers also feuded, including Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers who got into it three times. Chasers Kenseth and Harvick also traded paint more than once.
Second, .345 seconds behind the victor, was Jr.'s Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon.
Said Gordon, “Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. did a great job. A 1-2 finish is the best way to pay tribute to the members of the Hendrick team that lost their lives (10 years ago). It was a great effort for us and our Chevrolet. I made a big mistake on pit road by speeding, and I knew it. We had to claw our way back up there, and it was a total team effort.
“The good news (with second place) is that a Chase driver did not win the race, so finishing second isn’t that bad. I wanted to get that win to get ourselves locked in but we have two more great tracks coming up. Today was a great overall effort by the whole team.”
Asked what he was prepared to do had he been able to run down Earnhardt, he said, “I would have moved him for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind. Anyone who is out there racing has to measure risk versus reward and for me to win this race, it is worth taking a lot of risk even if it is your own teammate and upset him. It wouldn’t matter who it was, but I didn’t have the car to run him down.”
Crew chief Steve Letarte
Crew chief Steve Letarte was equally thrilled with the win and even more thrilled with Earnhardt coming home with one of the coveted grandfather’s clocks. “This place is so special and ever since I have known Dale, he gets that twinkle in his eye when we talk about Martinsville. He really wanted one of those clocks. This is a special trophy. We prepare for this race like others do for the Brickyard.”
“There was lots of beating and banging around today, and we saw more serious crashes, which is what the sport has created.”
Regarding the final pit stop, he added, “It wasn’t a hard decision to make but it was hard to watch. Tires were very important; we saw it earlier in day. It came down to how we would feel about losing with or without tires, so we put tires on it and luckily there were a lot of lap-down cars on the track.”
Newman continues impressive Chase run
Ryan Newman took third place with Tony Stewart fourth. Fifth went to Joey Logano.
“It was kind of chaos with the guys up there that stayed out and we had two tires. Some guys we knew were going to be coming on four like the 22. It was a good run for the Quicken Loans Chevrolet SS and a great start to this bracket of the Chase. Got to thank all the fans for coming out and what a beautiful day here in Martinsville and had a lot of fun. I have to thank everyone at RCR and ECR for giving us a good piece to work with and we are digging and we are going to keep digging.”
Sixth through tenth were Matt Kenseth, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, A. J. Allmendinger and David Ragan in Front Row's first ever top ten on a track other than a plate race.
The intense short-track action took its toll on five of the eight Chase contenders. Speeding penalties affected three of them and accidents damaged the cars of Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth.
With 65 laps to go, Keselowski’s car suffered an apparent rear gear failure while racing in a pack of cars, triggering a multi-car accident and stopping the race until the racing surface could be cleared.
Keselowski was scored 31st and Harvick 33rd at the end. Gordon, Newman, Logano, and Kenseth currently make up the top four in the championship.