MARTINSVILLE, Va. (AP) — Dale Earnhardt Jr. recognized the emotional impact his win at Martinsville Speedway had on Rick Hendrick when he met his boss in Victory Lane.
The team owner embraced the driver who delivered the win at the track that has caused so much heartbreak and joy. Martinsville was Hendrick’s home track as a child growing up in Virginia, the place where Hendrick Motorsports had it first career victory.
But it was 10 years ago this weekend that an HMS plane on its way to the race crashed, killing all 10 on board. Lost on that day were Hendrick’s son, brother, twin nieces, the team general manger, head engine builder, a key sponsor representative, two Hendrick pilots and a pilot for Tony Stewart.
His four drivers try desperately to win at Martinsville for Hendrick, for the organization, for those who died that October day.
“I could feel how important it was to him and his embrace when he hugged me,” Earnhardt said. “There’s a genuine hug and there’s a hug. His was the real deal. This is the 10th anniversary. It’s more difficult. The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering.”
It was fitting that it was Earnhardt who carried the Hendrick banner on this difficult day. He lost his father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, in a fatal accident on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.
All of NASCAR mourned for an entire season, on every anniversary and Earnhardt Jr. had to grieve with a rabid fan base watching his every move.
“Losing my dad was difficult. I can’t even imagine that loss that he went through, his family went through, the whole organization, all those people at one time,” Earnhardt said. “I was so proud to be able ... win this race on this challenging weekend for the company. They’re very hurt and it’s a heavy heart that they carry all weekend, but they want to win the race.”
It was Earnhardt’s fourth win of the season and the first of his career at Martinsville, and came a week after he was eliminated from NASCAR’s championship race.
No longer a participant in the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship, he had nothing on the line when he raced hard in the closing laps with teammate Jeff Gordon.
Gordon, who is still in the Chase, settled for second in a 1-2 finish for Hendrick. But it was the win that he wanted: A victory would have earned him an automatic berth into the finale.
“I will say that it makes me feel a little bit better about finishing second that it was second to somebody that’s not in the Chase,” Gordon said. “Had that been somebody in the Chase, it would have been hard to swallow.
Gordon was the highest finishing Chase driver.
Chase driver Ryan Newman was third, and Stewart finished fourth. Chase drivers Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth were fifth and sixth.
Running fifth, Stewart gambled and stayed on the track after the race was red-flagged with 10 laps left. Earnhardt and Gordon pitted for fresh tires, and that one final stop was just enough for the successful finish.
“If we had to do that 100 times over, we’d do the same thing,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have anything to lose. It was worth the gamble.
“This is as good as a win to me.”
Other Chase driver results included: Denny Hamlin eighth, Carl Edwards 20th, Brad Keselowski 31st and Kevin Harvick 33rd.
Harvick crashed just past the halfway point when he had contact with Kenseth following a restart. It made for a mixed day for Stewart-Haas Racing: Team co-owner Stewart scored his first top-five finish since March, but Harvick’s championship chances took a huge hit.
Harvick had to take his car to the garage, where crew members from all of SHR’s teams worked furiously to repair the damage and get him back on the track. Even competition director Greg Zipadelli was working on the Chevrolet, which received significant repairs before Harvick returned to the race, down 40 laps.
“Yeah, he won’t win this championship,” Harvick said about Kenseth. “If we don’t, he won’t.”
Added Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers: “He just flat-out wrecked us. It’s a bad decision on his part, for sure.”
Kenseth called the race “one of the lowlights of my career,” and said he understood Harvick’s frustration.
“I don’t blame him for feeling like that, to be honest with you. It was a mistake,” Kenseth said. “He was an innocent bystander, at the wrong place at the wrong time. I totally understand how he feels, I totally understand why he would say that, I totally get it.
“He knows it’s a mistake, too, but that doesn’t really help him. I don’t blame him. He got taken out of the race for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Harvick likely needs to win at either Texas Motor Speedway next week or Phoenix International Raceway — where he’s a five-time winner — to advance to the finale.
Same for Keselowski, who overcame an early speeding penalty to be in the hunt until a mechanical problem in his Ford caused a multi-car crash that involved Edwards with 64 laps left and forced a red flag.
Keselowski just climbed out of a similar hole a week ago — he had to win at Talladega to advance into this round of the Chase.
“It’s been tough but it builds character and makes us stronger,” Keselowski said. “With this format, we’re by no means out.”