It would seem that the only thing wrong with Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway was the timing.
There had to be at least some fans within the jubilant Junior Nation that had the thought of “If only this had come last week!,” even as they were jumping up and down and blowing their Dale Calls.
Last weekend at Talladega, Earnhardt was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup. And in the aftermath, we wondered how he, his outgoing crew chief Steve Letarte, and his No. 88 team would respond.
What a response they gave.
“It feels good not to sit there and watch everybody else just finish the year off,” Earnhardt said. “I’m glad we were able to get a win, remind ourselves that if we keep working hard, keep trying, maybe we will win the championship like we want to.
“We’re definitely a good enough team. We got to get them breaks, got to keep working, got to stay positive. You can’t get beat down.”
Earnhardt’s inaugural triumph at NASCAR’s shortest track was an undeniable thrill for him.
As you’d expect considering his pedigree, Junior is a student of the sport. He was quite familiar with those Martinsville grandfather clocks – his father, Dale Sr., claimed six Martinsville wins after all – but he had long craved one for himself. To see him claim his own Sunday was fun to watch.
But more importantly, the victory was also a balm for Hendrick Motorsports and team owner Rick Hendrick, which marked the 10-year anniversary of the plane crash that shook the squad to its core.
Add in teammate Jeff Gordon’s runner-up finish, and HMS paid a most fitting tribute to the 10 people that lost their lives on Bull Mountain.
Taking all of that into account – the message sent that the 88 team would finish the year strong, the refreshing celebration from Earnhardt, the poignancy of his victory – you realize that the matter of him winning one week after being knocked out of the title picture doesn’t seem to matter so much.
Chase or no Chase, this win is one that deserves to be remembered for a good long while.
Speaking of the post-season, Earnhardt’s win kept Gordon, one of the eight remaining Chasers, from advancing to the Sprint Cup Championship Race. Time will tell if that comes back to hurt Gordon if he’s unable to advance from the Eliminator Round.
But for now, Gordon sits atop the Chase Grid with a seven-point cushion over the fifth-place cutoff. Behind him and also in Championship advance positions are Ryan Newman, Joey Logano, and Matt Kenseth.
Newman and Kenseth’s trademark consistency continues to pay off, even with their respective goose-eggs in the win column.
But while Newman heads to Texas with momentum after a third-place finish, Kenseth may have to be on guard after Chase rival Kevin Harvick – who was knocked into the wall by a spinning Kenseth near the midway point on Sunday – vowed that if he didn’t win the Cup, neither would the ’03 Cup champion.
Also in a deep points hole is Brad Keselowski, whose mechanical failure with around 65 laps to go led to a multi-car crash (and a red flag). One week after coming through in a must-win situation at Talladega, he may be facing that same scenario again.
MORE FROM MARTINSVILLE: Will non-Chasers have say in championship? … “Smoke” rises for fourth-place finish … Logano salvages day for Team Penske … Bubba Wallace repeats at M’Ville in NASCAR Trucks … Matt Crafton atop Truck Series standings with 3 races to go.