First Martinsville win for Dale Jr. authentic, enthusiastic, poignant

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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.

Final 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona results, stats

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The 2023 Rolex 24 at Daytona overall results were all streaks: two consecutive victories in the endurance classic for Meyer Shank Racing and three in a row for Acura.

And Helio Castroneves became the second driver to win three consecutive Rolex 24s and the first to win in three straight years (Peter Gregg won in 1973, ’75 and ’76; the race wasn’t held in ’74 because of a global oil crisis).

Starting from the pole position, Tom Blomqvist took the checkered flag in the No. 60 ARX-06 that led a race-high 365 of 783 laps with co-drivers Castroneves, Simon Pagenaud and Colin Braun.

RESULTS: Click here for the finishing order in the 61st Rolex 24 at Daytona l By class

Meyer Shank Racing now has two Rolex 24 victories and the 2022 championship since entering the premier prototype category of the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship in 2021.

“I think what’s so special about this team is we are a small team compared to some of our opponents, but the atmosphere, the way we work, enables people to get the best out of themselves, and I think that’s why we’re such high achievers,” Blomqvist said. “I think there’s no egos. It’s a very open book, and that just enables each and every one of us to reach our potential. I think that’s why we’ve achieved so much success in really a short time at this level of competition.”

It’s the 16th IMSA victory for MSR.

The 61st running of the Rolex 24 at Daytona marked the debut of the Grand Touring Prototype category that brought hybrid engine technology to IMSA’s top level.

In other categories:

LMP2: James Allen passed Ben Hanley on the final lap and delivered a victory in the No. 55 ORECA by 0.016 seconds. It’s the second IMSA victory for Proton Competition, which last won at Sebring in 2012. It was the first Rolex 24 victory for Allen and co-drivers Gianmaria Bruni, Fred Poordad and Francesco Pizzi.

GTD Pro: Cooper MacNeil won in the last start of his IMSA career as the No. 79 Mercedes-AMG GT3 scored the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for WeatherTech Racing and the team’s fourth career victory.

MacNeil, who co-drove with Maro Engel, Jules Gounon and Daniel Juncadella, earned his 12th career victory and first at the Rolex 24.

“Winning by last IMSA race is tremendous,” MacNeil said.

GTD: The No. 27 Heart of Racing Team delivered the first Rolex 24 at Daytona for Aston Martin, which has been competing in endurance races at Daytona International Speedway since 1964. Drivers Marco Sorensen, Roman De Angelis, Darren Turner and Ian James (also the team principal) earned the victory in the English brand’s 13th attempt.

It’s also the first Rolex 24 at Daytona win for Heart of Racing, which has seven IMSA wins.

LMP3: Anthony Mantella, Wayne Boyd, Nico Varrone and Thomas Merrill drove the No. 17 AWA Duqueine D08 to victory by 12 laps for the team’s first class win in IMSA.


STATS PACKAGE FOR ROLEX 24 HOURS OF DAYTONA:

Fastest laps by driver

Fastest laps by driver after race (over the weekend)

Fastest laps by driver and class after race

Fastest lap sequence

Lap chart

Leader sequence

Race analysis by lap

Stint analysis

Time cards

Pit stop time cards

Best sector times

Race distance and speed average

Flag analysis

Weather report

NEXT: The 2023 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship season will resume with the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring March 18 with coverage across NBC, USA and Peacock.