Along with his win in this year’s Daytona 500, Sunday’s triumph for Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Martinsville Speedway was one of the most popular triumphs of this or any NASCAR season.
There’s something more to winning at tracks with such history – and, unfortunately, the history of Martinsville for Hendrick Motorsports is no doubt affected by the tragedy that occurred 10 years ago.
It was an unfortunate subplot that was brought to the surface again this weekend on that 10-year mark, but for Junior, he understood the significance of what that meant, even though he was outside the family at that point.
“This is the 10th anniversary. It’s more difficult,” he admitted during the post-race press conference. “The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering. On other anniversaries, you really don’t have to remember as much or reflect as much. But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the 10th, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge. You do. You want to. There’s a part of you that loves to celebrate those people’s lives. But there’s the other half of you that can’t forget the loss.
MORE: Remembering the Hendrick Motorsports airplane tragedy: 10 years later, it still seems like just yesterday
“Losing my dad was difficult. I can’t imagine that loss that he went through, his family went through, the whole organization. All those people at one time. It just has to be unbelievable to have to deal with that.
“They do a lot to recognize and remember and celebrate those people’s lives. I think the more years, the more time I spend around the organization, the more I started to understand what that weekend means to the company.”
The team has dealt with it, of course, and emerged from the events of 10 years ago an even stronger organization.
Hendrick has now added its 12th win of the season, moving one ahead of Team Penske for the most this season.
For Junior, the Sunday win was about exorcising his own 15 years worth of demons at the tricky paperclip and winning that elusive first grandfather clock.
“I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of like all these pictures on the wall in here,” he said. “I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.
“I always wanted one. I came close I think several times. We had some good finishes here. Even with Tony, Sr. and Tony, Jr. (Eury) in the Bud days, we had pretty quick cars here. Several years I think the car should have won, but the driver didn’t.
“The clock seems so hard to get. This is so special. I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it’s a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win here.”
The authentic nature of Junior celebrating this win like it was his first – or potentially last with crew chief Steve Letarte, who moves on at year’s end to join the NASCAR on NBC broadcast booth – was a refreshing tonic on a day where cautions and two red flags plagued the race and Junior nearly lost it again on the final sequence.
With under 10 laps to go, the pit stop sequence shuffled Junior outside the top three heading into the final restart. No matter, though, as he was positive he and Letarte had made the right call.
“It wasn’t hard at all. Staying out on old tires, we were going to lose for sure,” he said. “Taking two tires, if nobody else took two tires, so we got all these guys behind us on four tires, we were probably going to be beat.
“It was the right call to come get four. I knew it was. I had to hope to line up in the right line, get the right circumstances in the restart. Sometimes it doesn’t work out. I could have gotten beat out of pit road by somebody and not had the opportunities I made on the inside.”
But with fresh tires and a determined will to win, he made it back to the front those final few laps.
“I remember going into turn three and seeing Tony (Stewart, then the leader) struggle,” Earnhardt explained. “I thought, I got to get by him really fast because he’s going to hold me up. If I have to run behind him for even a corner, I’m going to have somebody with four tires, just like me, on my bumper. That’s not going to be fun for three laps.
“I got sort of a run. I really wasn’t under Tony, but I think he knew that the position was lost and he’d give me the inside going into three. As soon as we got in the center corner, I just gassed it, doored him pretty hard. But I had to go.”
Go he did, and go hard celebrating he did immediately after that checkered flag.