By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor
In his 29 previous starts at Martinsville, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had come so close, so many times on capturing that elusive grandfather clock trophy.
But in the 2014 Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500, the stars aligned for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver, as he finally scored a win on the half-mile bullring that is Martinsville Speedway.
Starting 23rd, Earnhardt first made his way to the lead on lap 192 for a 13 lap stint before being overtaken Matt Kenseth for one lap and then returned to the lead for another seven laps.
Earnhardt would not leave the top-10 for the remainder of the race as he used his Martinsville prowess to stay close enough to the front of the field to strike when the time was right. He would lead another 17 laps from lap 297 to lap 313, but it would be his pass of Clint Bowyer for the lead on lap 454 that would set the stage for the remainder of the race.
After pulling away from Bowyer, he had one person that he could not shake in his mirror, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Jeff Gordon.
The two ran first and second as the laps wound down, with Earnhardt holding a one second lead over the four-time champion and nine-time Martinsville winner. While it was looking like a green flag run to the finish for the two teammates, the caution flew with 10 laps remaining and despite the yellow that Earnhardt and his team did not want to see, they stayed cool under pressure as they chose to come to pit road for tires while a few others stayed out.
When the race restarted with five laps led, Earnhardt quickly moved through traffic and then set his sights on the lead held by Tony Stewart. After banging doors with Stewart and re-taking the lead with four laps remaining, it was all-Earnhardt as he pulled away for his first Martinsville win with Gordon following close behind.
If anyone remembers how excited Earnhardt was after winning at Daytona earlier in the season, the excitement level Earnhardt showed after crossing the finish line was on a higher level than that as he spun around a did a Polish Victory Lap pumping his fist out the window while doing a burnout around the track.
Once he pulled into Victory Lane, he immediately threw his arms into the air in triumph and then spiked his Mountain Dew bottle before jumping up on stage to celebrate with his crew as they jumped up and down in jubilation. So much so that a few of the track workers had to hold the grandfather clock still so that it would not tip over.
“Oh, man. We’ve been trying to win here for so many years,” Earnhardt said. “And this place is so special to me. I’ve wanted to win here so bad. We brought the good cars. I’m out of breath from celebrating more than driving. It’s a real emotional win. This team on pit road was great and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the guys did a real good job all day. They gave me a great shot at it there with the call at the end to take tires. I can’t believe we won here. This means so much to all of us. It’s just real emotional.
“I’ve wanted that grandfather clock ever since I was a little boy and I got is today. My team, we all came together and made it happen. I couldn’t be prouder. We’re going to drink a lot of beer tonight. That’s what’s going to happen!”
Of course, anytime the sport makes a visit to Martinsville, the thoughts of the terrible plane crash that occurred near the track in 2004 is always brought to mind and for Hendrick Motorsports and Earnhardt, his win went a long way in helping to heal old wounds as the race marked the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.
“This is the 10th anniversary,” Earnhardt added. “It’s more difficult. 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.
“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.
“I think I’ve paralleled my loss and his loss until I started working with him, then I started understanding it’s quite a bit larger void that it created. 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.
“They always run good at Martinsville. They always win here. Like I say, I seen all the other drivers, even Mark Martin, all the other guys, continue come here and winning races. I thought when I started with Hendrick, I would have a better shot at getting a victory here.
“Part of me wishes that it hadn’t took so long, but the other part of me thinks the fact that it did take me so long makes me appreciate it more and celebrate it.”