Time creeping up on Dale Jr. at Martinsville
March 29, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
MARTINSVILLE, Va. -- The clock is ticking for Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The Martinsville Speedway clock, that is.
The Hendrick Motorsports driver, owner of 20 career wins in NASCAR's premier series, has yet to win on the small, 0.526-mile track, but not for lack of effort. In more than half of his starts here at Martinsville (15 of 28), Earnhardt Jr. has finished in the top 10. He's finished second twice and led multiple laps on multiple occasions.
But he's yet to exit with one of the tall, distinctive grandfather clocks that are awarded to the race winner.
"This is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time," Earnhardt Jr., 39, said Friday. "I grew up in a house full of clocks so it's been pretty elusive."
Earnhardt Jr.'s father, the late Dale Earnhardt, won here six times. Current teammates Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson have each won here on eight occasions. Earnhardt Jr. has been close. But only close. Thus far, no clock.
"We have had some good cars in the past here that I've felt like could have won races and we just weren't able to get the job done for whatever reason, somebody was faster or whatever," he said. "We flat got outrun by Kevin (Harvick) … in '11. I thought we had it. I thought we were going to be fine once we got out front, but he was just so fast. I tried to get under him in (turns) three and four but he didn't have a bumper left to move. I went in there to shove him a little bit and everything on that corner of his car was gone. That is just how it works out."
That year, he moved into the lead with 20 laps remaining. Harvick slid into second soon after, and with four laps remaining, found enough of an opening on the inside to work his way to the front. Harvick held on for the win, with Earnhardt Jr. placing second.
His best car, Earnhardt Jr. said, came earlier "when we knocked the right-front fender off and we ended up running fourth that day.
"I was coming back through the field and spun out on the inside of (Ryan) Newman in (turns) three and four and had that not happened I think we would have been in position to win the race because we were by far the quickest car," he said. "Just we had to go back to the back of the field after that additional spin and we didn't have enough race left to get back to the front. We ended up finishing fourth, but that car was really fast."
It helped, he said, that the early incident resulted in the loss of a front right-side fender, which kept cooler air moving across the tire and brakes.
"We were kind of an average car for 10 laps and then after that it would just take off," he said. "I have been trying to figure out how to get my fenders to fall off ever since."
Joe Gibbs Racing's Kyle Busch, another driver seeking his first Cup win at Martinsville, will start on the Coors Light Pole for Sunday's STP 500. Earnhardt Jr. will line up a bit deeper in the field, qualifying a disappointing 26th.
"I hope we can be competitive," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It gets harder and harder because the competition seems to get better and better every time you come back here.
"Obviously I'm racing with my teammates who are two of the most talented and successful guys at this track. We got a tough hill to climb, but hopefully we can maybe get it done."