Sunday, October 26, 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. scores first win at Martinsville, fourth win of 2014


Credit: Sarah Glenn/Getty Images
One week after being eliminated from championship contention, Dale Earnhardt Jr. held off teammate Jeff Gordon to win the 66th Annual Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway and finally get the grandfather clock trophy he's wanted for so long.

"Got you a timepiece, buddy," said crew chief Steve Letarte on the radio as his driver began celebrating.

In Victory Lane, Earnhardt Jr. said, "I've wanted that grandfather clock since I was a little boy and I got it today. My team all came together and we made it happen."

He took the lead on Lap 454 and threaded through traffic looking for the checkered flag. On Lap 489, Kyle Larson tried to muscle under Marcos Ambrose and sent the two cars spinning. Larson's No. 42 ended up against the wall leaking fluid across the track and bringing out the red flag for the second time in the race.

Despite there being fewer than 10 laps to go, Letarte told his driver, "We've got to pit."

After a four-tire stop, the No. 88 restarted fifth behind drivers who didn't pit: Tony Stewart, Clint Bowyer, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Ragan. On the restart, Bowyer shoved Stenhouse Jr. aside and Earnhardt Jr. darted below the knot of cars and into second place.

Stewart couldn't hold off Earnhardt Jr.'s four fresh tires and got slammed to the side as the No. 88 streaked past him to the lead. The crowd, as they say, went wild.

Stewart wound up fourth, his best finish since Bristol back in March.

Ryan Newman slipped through to finish third, and Joey Logano, who led twice for a total of 60 laps, wound up fifth.

To add to the tension of the first race of the Eliminator Round, several of the Chase contenders experienced problems during the race.

Although they rallied back to finish second and third respectively, Gordon and Newman both got speeding penalties on Lap 191. Matt Kenseth inadvertently sent Kevin Harvick into the wall on Lap 228. Brad Keselowski was involved in an accident on Lap 222 and then either broke a transmission or an axle on Lap 437, piling up the field behind him and bringing out the first red flag of the afternoon. Just a normal day at Martinsville.

Normal days at Martinsville also meant tempers flared. Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers traded blows on track until NASCAR told them they were done. Danica Patrick gave no quarter to Martin Truex Jr. and he went spinning, then later punted her into the wall. Just normal short-track racing.

Despite it being just normal short-track racing, for Earnhardt, the win carried meaning beyond the fact that he's having his best season since 2004. That year means more than just the last season he won multiple races.

"This place is so special to me, I've wanted to win here so bad," said Earnhardt. "It's just really emotional. It means so much to all of us."

"Us" meaning Hendrick Motorsports, for whom the win means more than just another grandfather clock. This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of the plane crash that changed the lives of the Hendrick family and HMS employees forever.

On October 24, 2004, the plane carrying Ricky, John, Kimberly and Jennifer Hendrick, HMS chief engine builder Randy Dorton and general manager Jeff Turner, DuPont executive Joe Jackson, Tony Stewart's pilot Scott Lathram, and pilots Richard Tracy and Elizabeth Morrison slammed into a foggy Virginia mountainside. All were killed.

Earnhardt Jr. didn't drive for Hendrick at the time, but was always close to the family and even if he hadn't been, it would be difficult to have spent the years he has at the company and not be aware of how important winning at Martinsville is for the organization.

"We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard," said Letarte. "There's a reason that all of our cars run well here. It starts with Mr. Hendrick. Right behind him it comes to our drivers. They study it, understand it, believe it, work very hard at it. It's not just by chance. We don't just have some lucky drivers that are good here. They work very hard to be good here. I think that trickles through the organization."

"It's a way to really pay tribute," Gordon said. "It's the ultimate way you can do it. We've been able to do it several times, which is very, very cool."

Heading to Texas, Gordon leads the Chase standings by three over Newman. Positions three through eight are Logano, Kenseth, Hamlin, Edwards, Keselowski and Harvick.

Unofficial finishing order  


Fin    Driver
1    Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
2    Jeff Gordon
3    Ryan Newman
4    Tony Stewart
5    Joey Logano
6    Matt Kenseth
7    Clint Bowyer
8    Denny Hamlin
9    A.J. Allmendinger
10    David Ragan
11    Kyle Busch
12    Austin Dillon
13    Greg Biffle
14    Paul Menard
15    Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.
16    Jamie McMurray
17    Justin Allgaier
18    Cole Whitt
19    Landon Cassill
20    Carl Edwards
21    Aric Almirola
22    David Gilliland
23    Marcos Ambrose
24    Michael Annett
25    Josh Wise
26    Mike Wallace
27    Brian Vickers
28    Kyle Fowler
29    Alex Bowman
30    Kyle Larson
31    Brad Keselowski
32    Jimmie Johnson
33    Kevin Harvick
34    Danica Patrick
35    Reed Sorenson
36    Kurt Busch
37    Casey Mears
38    Martin Truex, Jr.
39    J.J. Yeley
40    Kasey Kahne
41    Travis Kvapil
42    Timmy Hill
43    Clay Rogers
 

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