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.