Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville was shaping up to be a promising day for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his No 88 team, but a late race crash would put an end to his hopes for his first top-10 of the season, relegating him to a 34th place finish instead.
Martinsville serves as one of Earnhardt’s better tracks on the circuit, with one win, 13 top-five finishes, 18 top-10 finishes, 972 laps led, and an average finish of 12.9 in 33 starts entering the day, so the team was confident they would be able to run well on the half-mile track.
Despite starting 21st on the day after qualifying was rained out, Earnhardt quickly began marching his way through the field. On lap 124, contact with Ryan Blaney would send Earnhardt’s Chevrolet for a spin down the backstretch, but he was able to keep it off the wall with minimal damage.
By the end of the second stage at lap 260, Earnhardt was back in the top-10 and challenging to crack the top-five as well.
However, a pit road speeding penalty under caution with 109 laps to go would drop him from the top-10 back in the pack, where he would have to fight his way back to the front once again.
As he was making his way back through the field on lap 418, the field stacked up in front of him entering Turn 3 when Denny Hamlin wheel-hopped into the corner and got into Danica Patrick, causing her to spin. Earnhardt would have nowhere to go as he made contact with his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Kasey Kahne and damaged the radiator in his car, sending steam spewing into the sky and signaling an end to his day.
As he limped back to the garage, Earnhardt keyed his radio and said: “We’ve got some bad luck. What the **** just happened?”
“I love this place,” said Earnhardt. “A lot of fun today. The car was really good. Greg and the guys made a lot of changes last night and made our car way better. I must have sped on pit road. They said it was in the segment right after our pit stall, so I must have gotten a good launch out of there. Hanging around John Force too much or something, I don’t know. I don’t know how you speed in that little segment just coming out of the pit box, but we must’ve.”
“It got us kind of in the back and we got bottled up there in (Turn) 3 and there ain’t no bumpers on these cars and it knocked the radiator out of it. So, we’re out of the race. We came in the garage and tried to fix it, but we can’t, you know, the new rules. Happy with the speed in the car. I was having a good time, but real disappointed with the way we’ve been finishing. Got to finish better than this.”
With his finish at Martinsville, Earnhardt drops to 25th in points heading to next weekend’s race at Texas Motor Speedway, the site of his first career win back in 2000.