A decision to pit with less than 10 laps to go has yielded perhaps one of the most emotional victories ever for both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Hendrick Motorsports.
Under caution, Earnhardt was among several leaders that decided to get fresh tires in advance of a five-lap sprint to the checkered flag. He took the last restart in fifth place, but sliced through his rivals, passed Tony Stewart for the lead with three to go, and won the Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
It’s Earnhardt’s first victory ever at NASCAR’s oldest track, and the sport’s most popular driver celebrated as boisterously as we’ve ever seen him do so following a Sprint Cup win.
Earnhardt got out of his car, climbed onto the mobile stage at the start/finish line, and jumped up and down with No. 88 crew members as the Ridgeway grandfather clock – the traditional trophy for all Martinsville winners – wobbled next to them.
“We’ve tried to win here so many years,” Earnhardt told ESPN. “This place is so special to me. I’ve wanted to win here so bad…Real emotional win. This team on pit road was great and [crew chief] Steve [Letarte] and the guys just did a great job all day.
“They gave me a great shot at the end with the call to take tires. I can’t believe we’ve won here. It means so much to all of us.”
The win takes on even more poignancy this weekend as it comes on the 10-year anniversary of the plane crash that took such a heavy toll on the Hendrick team and occurred a short distance away from Martinsville Speedway.
Earnhardt was not a member of HMS at the time of the tragedy. But in Victory Lane, he remembered the environment that emerged following it.
“I just wanted to support Hendrick Motorsports during that time…Everybody in the garage at that time was wearing Hendrick hats. The whole sport had come together,” he said.
“I lost my Daddy a long time ago and I know how hard that is. I can’t imagine losing the magnitude of people that [team owner] Rick [Hendrick] lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend…This honors them. I’m real proud to be able to win at Martinsville in a Hendrick car.”
Perhaps even bigger for the team, HMS claimed a 1-2 finish this afternoon as Jeff Gordon finished second behind Earnhardt.
The final outcome started to take shape when Kyle Larson and Marcos Ambrose spun out and crashed with 11 laps to go while Earnhardt was in the lead.
NASCAR chose to throw its second red flag of the afternoon for cleanup and to save as much of the remaining laps as possible. But that decision caused the leaders to weigh staying out for track position against pitting.
Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and David Ragan opted to stay out, while Earnhardt, Gordon, and Clint Bowyer chose to go in for service. Bowyer won the race out of the pits ahead of Earnhardt, Denny Hamlin and Gordon, but Stewart, Stenhouse and Ragan moved up to the Top 3 with Bowyer in fourth and Earnhardt in fifth.
With five laps left, the green flag came out again – and Earnhardt and Gordon made their surge. Then with three to go, Earnhardt got by Stewart on the inside off Turn 4 for the race-winning pass.
Chase contender Ryan Newman finished third, followed by Stewart in fourth and another Chaser, Joey Logano, in fifth.
Since a non-Chase competitor won today (Earnhardt was eliminated from the Chase last week at Talladega), it ensures that at least two of the eight remaining Chasers will make the Championship Race at Homestead-Miami Speedway on points.
Gordon assumes the top spot on the Chase Grid with a seven-point cushion over the Championship cutoff. Newman, by virtue of his third-place result today, is now second on the Grid with a four-point cushion. Logano (+3 points) is in third, and Matt Kenseth, who finished sixth today, holds the final spot by two points over eighth-place finisher Hamlin.
Three of the Eliminator 8 swallowed sub-par results and thus got out to tough starts in the Eliminator Round. Carl Edwards’ 20th-place finish sticks him sixth on the Grid at 15 points behind the cutoff, but crashes for Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick have them further down at 26 and 28 points back respectively heading for Texas Motor Speedway next weekend.