Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored a hugely emotional victory in Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway, holding off his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to win for the first time at the Virginia short track.
The triumph came on the 10th anniversary weekend of an airplane crash near the track that killed team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, brother John, and eight other family members, friends and colleagues. To win anytime is huge for Earnhardt and the team, but this was something special.
Earnhardt won his fourth race of the season and the 23rd of his career, in one of his final races with crew chief Steve Letarte, who next year moves to the television booth.
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"Oh, man. We have tried to win here so many years," said Earnhardt. "This place is so special to me. I wanted to win so bad. … I can’t believe we won here. This means so much to all of us, you know? It’s just real emotional."
Runner-up Gordon led the most laps and had a fast car but ultimately came up a little short.
"It was a great comeback. I thought we had the car to beat," said Gordon, who was unable to lock himself into the final race at Homestead-Miami Speedway in three weeks. "…Those last couple laps were just wild. Congratulations to Dale Jr. That means so much to Hendrick Motorsports. That’s the best way you can possibly pay tribute to those that we lost 10 years ago."
The afternoon was not kind for several of the eight drivers still alive in this, the first race of the Eliminator Round of the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, as Carl Edwards (20th), Brad Keselowski (31st) and Kevin Harvick (33rd) all had big problems.
Finishing third behind the two Hendrick Chevrolets was Ryan Newman in the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet. Then came Tony Stewart, who matched his best finish of the year in his No. 14 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet. He was followed by Joey Logano in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford.
I couldn’t be prouder. We’re going to drink a lot of beer tonight.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., after winning Sunday's race at Martinsville Speedway
Under beautiful fall skies in Southern Virginia, Jamie McMurray started from the pole in his Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates Chevrolet, flanked by Logano. By Lap 50, Gordon had moved all the way from his 13th starting spot to second place behind McMurray. And Gordon, the defending winner of this race, took his first lead on Lap 85, going under McMurray shortly after a restart.
Gordon led 105 laps until getting busted for speeding on pit road on Lap 190, restarting 30th, one position ahead of Newman, who was also too fast under caution. That turned the lead over to his teammate Earnhardt first and then Logano.
Then, big drama. Heading into Turn 1 just after a restart on Lap 228, Matt Kenseth wheel-hopped into the back of Kevin Harvick, putting both cars into the wall. Harvick’s car got the worst of it and had to go back to the garage for lengthy repairs.
After another caution, Stewart stayed out and went to the point for the first time on Lap 260. But soon, fresh rubber prevailed with Logano, Hamlin, Earnhardt and McMurray all sweeping past.
After more pit stops, spring Martinsville winner Kurt Busch passed Earnhardt on Lap 314, with Gordon quickly moving into second place behind him.
Hamlin cleanly passed Gordon for the lead on Lap 359, using fresher tires to his advantage.
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A debris caution on Lap 418 sent the field down pit road. This time, Bowyer emerged in the lead, thanks to an excellent stop from his Michael Waltrip Racing crew. Under caution, Kurt Busch’s car popped an oil line, soaking the track with oil and necessitating a lengthy cleanup.
On the Lap 432 restart, Gordon moved to second, while a couple of laps later, Brad Keselowski broke something in his drivetrain, slowed and then the field piled up behind him on the frontstretch. Keselowski got hit by Casey Mears, who got hit by Danica Patrick, and it was on.
That brought out a red flag for track clean up.
Finally, the green flew with 58 laps left. Clint Bowyer led, but Gordon, who restarted second, got hung on the outside line and fell to fifth.
Meanwhile, up front, Earnhardt started pressuring Bowyer for the race lead, while Gordon got up to fourth behind Logano.
Earnhardt used his bumper to move Bowyer out of the way and put the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet with 47 laps to go, while two laps later, Gordon passed Logano for third.
Gordon moved past Bowyer and into second with 34 laps to go, but by then, Earnhardt was 1.569 seconds clear in the lead.
With 12 laps to go, Kyle Larson and Marcos Ambrose crashed, bringing out another red flag. Most of the leaders pitted, but Stewart, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and David Ragan stayed out to lead over Bowyer, Earnhardt, Hamlin and Gordon.
After the green came out, Earnhardt passed Stewart with four laps to go, holding off Gordon for the victory.
"I couldn’t be prouder," said Earnhardt. "We’re going to drink a lot of beer tonight."
VIDEO: Mechanical issue for Brad Keselowski causes multi-car wreck at Martinsville