Hendrick’s dilemma: Dale Jr.’s Martinsville win may have inadvertently flipped the script to new Chase

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Beyond the poignancy and emotion of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Martinsville win Sunday comes the other note that what happened Sunday was a potential flipping the narrative of the new-for-2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series chase format.

It was the first win by a non-Chase eligible driver at Martinsville since 2005 (Jeff Gordon). Coincidentally, this could impact Hendrick Motorsports’ sole remaining Chase-eligible driver, Gordon, going forward.

If Gordon fails to advance through the Eliminator round into the championship finale at Homestead, he may have to look back at Martinsville as the one that got away.

Gordon finished second to Earnhardt on Sunday, but featured three potential missed opportunities.

He didn’t have the opportunity to use his bumper to move Earnhardt out of the way. Which, when you read that sentence back, harkens back nicely to when Gordon was the upstart young gun in the ’90s threatening Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s dominance – and way of being. Such a move Sunday could have infuriated “Junior nation.”

“I would have moved him for sure,” Gordon said post-race. “There’s no doubt in my mind. Everybody who is out there racing has to weigh risk versus reward.  For me, to win this race, it’s worth taking a lot of risk, even if you upset your teammate.”

Then there was the fact Rick Hendrick was letting his two drivers race each other head on, as they were fixing to do the last 50 laps or so before the final caution, and ultimately the final pit stop where both drivers took tires and recovered to first and second, but were never as close as they were prior.

“I mean, Dale drove a nice, clean race.  I never had an opportunity,” Gordon explained.  “Even prior to that, I didn’t really have the car to run him down.  We just lost the drive off there on that run.  We were still a little bit better than him, but not enough to really go up there and run him down.”

Lastly, there was an in-race pit stop that Gordon admitted was a painful and rare mistake on his end.

“I ran second gear under my light sequence for first gear. Plain and simple,” he said. “That’s way too fast.”

You wonder if there could have been a way for Gordon to get around Earnhardt for the lead without it looking obvious, given that Gordon is Hendrick’s lone bullet left in the Chase. A win would have ensured he could advance through to Homestead without needing to worry what happened to him the next two races at Texas and Phoenix.

Intent that a move was pre-planned would be difficult to prove on a short track like Martinsville, where lapped traffic is ubiquitous and you’re almost always stuck behind slower cars at several points. Chances are such a move, if it would have had the opportunity to present itself, would not have looked nearly as blatant as Richmond last year with Clint Bowyer’s caution-causing, Chase-affecting spin.

But that’s just a hypothetical. As it is, Earnhardt was eliminated from Chase contention at Talladega last weekend. A win didn’t do anything for him from a cold, hard points standpoint, but it didn’t seem to matter to the Martinsville fans or to Junior and the 88 team themselves.

Winning still means something, he said, because having not won a championship before he’s not yet missing out.

“Hell, there’s no better feeling that I know of,” Earnhardt said. “I haven’t won a championship, so I don’t know what the hell I’m missing.  But this is absolutely incredible.

“Yeah, I mean, we’re disappointed we’re not in the Chase or don’t have a chance for the title.  But I can’t even imagine.  That’s just too much to even ponder what winning a championship would be like.

“Winning races is what it’s all about.  You want the best feeling of everybody in the garage, you need to get the checkered flag.  Everybody puts so much into it, you work so hard, we all do, everybody traveling so damn much, running like crazy.  We’ve been working like hell all year on and off the track.  It definitely feels good to be able to get some victories.”

Winning may be what it’s all about, but points is what it will come down to. And Earnhardt’s win Sunday opened the door for a second driver to make it to Homestead purely on points, without needing a win in what has been marketed as the “winning means everything” new Chase.

Gordon can put Martinsville aside with a win at either of Texas or Phoenix – tracks where he has won before (2009, 2011) respectively and finished second and fifth, respectively, earlier this year.

But with all of Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano likely in win contention at those two tracks, and the ever-increasing specter of winless but consistent accumulators Ryan Newman and Matt Kenseth lurking with a chance to advance on points, Hendrick Motorsports may look back at Martinsville as the day where they won the battle, but lost the war.

The truly ironic part in all of this is that Earnhardt has now been on both sides of the new Chase format.

Earnhardt would have won the 2013 title under the 2014 Chase format, although he failed to win a race all season.

In 2014, he’s won four times, including once in the Chase, but has been eliminated.

For Hendrick’s sake, they must have to hope from here that Gordon still makes it to Homestead with a shot after not winning on this occasion – on a day where a win for the 24 could have been had.

Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws
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More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”