The thought never crossed Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mind. He wasn’t ready to sacrifice a win as a favor to a teammate.
Nobody blamed him afterward, not even his teammate and Chase contender Jeff Gordon.
Everybody understood why Earnhardt Jr. never relented in taking the checkered flag at Sunday’s Goody’s Headache Relief Shot 500 at Martinsville Speedway. It’s a race he’s wanted to win his whole life, especially seeing his dad bring home six coveted grandfather-clock trophies.
“Oh, man, we’ve been trying to win here for so many years,” said Earnhardt, who became the first non-Chase contender to win a Chase race this season.
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“I could care less about all the points right now. We love winning races. Winning races is the best thing.
“I’ve wanted that grandfather clock ever since I was a little boy and I got it today. I want to put it just inside the front door where you got to walk around the damn thing when you come in the house, but [my girlfriend] probably won’t let me set it there.”
The fans, of course, went wild when NASCAR’s most popular driver won, and that overshadowed how the Chase contenders fared. If anyone not named “Junior” spoiled the Chase, it might have been a different story.
But five of the eight Chasers finished in the top eight: Gordon (second), Ryan Newman (third), Joey Logano (fifth), Matt Kenseth (sixth) and Denny Hamlin (eighth).
Carl Edwards came in 20th, which was not as bad as Brad Keselowski (31st) and Kevin Harvick (33rd). Keselowski and Harvick, victims of mid-race wrecks, now almost certainly need to win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth or the following week at Phoenix to secure one of four spots in the championship round.
“It’s not the day we wanted by any means,” said Keselowski, who only advanced to this Eliminator Round with a win last week at Talladega.
“This kind of puts us in a position now where we need to win. This Chase lends itself to those moments and we’re a team that’s capable of them, so we’ll try to be as positive as we can and move forward with two more opportunities to do just that.”
For Earnhardt, his win came a week too late. A win last week would have kept his championship dreams alive.
But Earnhardt wasn’t ready to play the “what-if” game. He was all smiles after his first win in 30 starts at the Virginia short track. It also marked win No. 4 on the season for Earnhardt, his second most since he won six times in 2004.
“We’re disappointed we’re not in the Chase or don’t have a chance for the title,” Earnhardt said. “But I know how fun winning races is, how hard it is to win races, especially at this particular racetrack.”
The most difficult decision for leaders late in the race came with 12 laps to go after Kyle Larson and Marcos Ambrose wrecked. That brought out the second red flag of the day and left teams facing a decision whether to pit for fresh tires or try to get by with what they had.
Most leaders, including Earnhardt and Gordon, opted to pit, while a few stayed out. Tony Stewart was one of the drivers to stay out, and he was in the lead before Earnhardt passed him with three laps to go.
After that, Earnhardt stayed in front and held off Gordon at the end.
The Hendrick Motorsports teammates didn’t have instructions to ensure a Gordon win to secure the team a spot in the championship round, something Gordon more than understands.
And Gordon went on to blame himself for losing the race, saying his penalty for speeding out of pit road early in the race cost his team.
“That was on me,” Gordon said. “We played catch-up for the rest of the day. … And Dale Jr. saw an opportunity to win and you can’t blame him for giving it everything he had to go get that win.
“That’s awesome for him.”
The day was also special for Hendrick Motorsports. Its big day came on the 10th anniversary of a tragic plane crash that took the lives of 10 people on the way to Martinsville.
Earnhardt and team owner Rick Hendrick shared a meaningful embrace in Victory Lane and that, in Earnhardt’s mind, meant just as much as the win.
“I could feel how important it was to him,” he said. “You just know there’s a genuine hug and there’s a hug. His was the real deal.”