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MARTINSVILLE, VA – With the sun quickly setting, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his crew chief, Steve Letarte were faced with a decision between fresh tires and preserving track position during a late race caution.
The Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway had been a wreck filled race and tires were put at a premium. Earnhardt’s 88 team owned by Rick Hendrick only had a chance at the end of the race thanks to smart strategy calls by Letarte. They wanted the win not just because Sunday’s race was the last time the pair would be coming to NASCAR’s shortest venue, but rather Martinsville Speedway holds a special importance for Hendrick Motorsports, which is the team that fields Earnhardt’s Chevrolet SS.
The emotion of the race steamed from a plane crash ten years earlier. Hendrick Motorsports suffered a catastrophic loss when a plane carrying numerous company executives and Hendricks son, Ricky, crashed into a mountain when in route to Martinsville Speedway.
Hendrick Motorsports nearly ceased to exist that day, but somehow the team regrouped. Since 2006 Hendrick Motorsports has won six championships, all with Jimmie Johnson. During every victory lane celebration for Hendrick Motorsports since the tragedy one picture has been taken with the teams hat’s worn backwards. The fashion statement pays respect to Ricky Hendrick by continuing a tradition he started during his brief NASCAR career.
Even with the success, Martinsville has remained a sensitive track for Rick Hendrick. Naturally, on the tenth anniversary of the tragedy that changed Hendrick Motorsports forever, emotions were running high. According to Radford Alumnus, Marty Smith, Rick Hendrick wasn’t sure if he would attend the race. Earnhardt spoke of his boss by saying, “He doesn’t know [if he’ll come] until he wakes up in the morning.”
It turns out he did, but the race didn’t begin as a fairytale for his team. Jamie McMurray, who drives for Chip Ganassi Racing took the pole in qualifying while Jeff Gordon, who was the highest starting Hendrick driver, started 13th. For the first stint of the race Hendrick Motorsports was nowhere to be seen, it took 85 laps, and some pit strategy for Gordon to find the top spot.
From that point on Gordon was a perennial contender for the win.
Earnhardt took 125 laps to reach the top-five and 192 for him to attain the lead. He didn’t stay in the top position for long thanks to frequent wrecks and pit stops that continuously jumbled the running order
Hendrick Motorsports driver, Kasey Kahne wasn’t able to contend for the win because he was too fixated on exacting revenge on his new found rival, Brian Vickers.
On lap 161 Kahne made contact with Vickers’ quarter panel sending him spinning into the turn four wall. Sixty-five laps later Vickers returned the favor by dumping Kahne in turn one. The frustration of NASCAR’s shortest track had reached a boiling point, when Kahne returned to the track he sought out and wrecked Vickers’ No. 55 Toyota. Following that incident NASCAR race control issued a warning to both teams by coming over the radio to tell both “they are done [wrecking].” The message was made and both drivers steered clear of each other for the rest of the event.
Following the race Kahne complained about the blocking done by Vickers, saying, “I was surprised that he thought he could use the whole race track.”
The 162nd Sprint Cup race at Martinsville Speedway reached a feverish pitch on lap 438 when Brad Keselowski broke his transmission coming out of a corner. A traffic jam ensued creating what Andy Petree, a race analyst for ESPN, called “one of the biggest wrecks [he’d] ever seen here.”
The race was red flagged for 11 minutes and 19 seconds giving each driver and team time to both calm down and get revamped for the finish.
Earnhardt was running in the top-five and ready to make a push for the win. Letarte made smart calls in the pits when the race restarted, but when the race appeared to be winding to a close a wild card was thrown at the teams.
Rookie, Kyle Larson was racing hard against Martin Truex Jr. when his throttle appeared to be hung. Both drivers spun out in turn three, Larson’s engine leaked oil onto the track creating the race’s second red flag period.
Suddenly Earnhardt and Letarte were faced with a critical decision; do they grab tires hoping most of the leaders would think likewise or do they stay up front and hope to hold off those with fresh Goodyear’s?
When pit road was opened they decided to take four fresh stickers. Most of the leaders did the same as them, but not all. Tony Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., and David Ragan stayed out, claiming the top three spots for the restart with five laps to go. Earnhardt restarted fifth with only Clint Bowyer separating him from those with the slower older tires.
The green flag drops, five laps to go. Earnhardt makes it three wide going down the backstretch, bringing himself to second in half a lap. His teammate, and car to beat, Jeff Gordon shadowed his every move.
Coming through turns three and four Earnhardt caught Stewart and completed a move made famous by his late father: the bump and run. Getting to Stewarts bumper Earnhardt pushed him up the track, opening up the bottom lane, which Earnhardt used to surge past Stewarts No. 14 Chevrolet SS.
Once again, Gordon haunted Earnhardt by making quick work of Stewart. Following the race Earnhardt spoke of this, “I hadn’t looked in the mirror since the green dropped, until I pasted Tony. I saw Jeff was four car lengths back.”
Knowing that Gordon needed the win to secure a spot in the final four at Homestead, Earnhardt was expecting Gordon to do anything it took to win.
Gordon never had the chance; Earnhardt maintained his lead to checkered flag. He celebrated his win by doing burnouts across the entire length of the speedway, making sure to acknowledge the thunderous applause from the crowd.
Rick Hendrick was the first to greet his driver in victory lane where the pair had several long embraces. After a wreck-filled afternoon, Earnhardt had given his boss a reason to smile, and wear a backwards hat on the tenth anniversary of losing his son.