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Martinsville lookback: The right time for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Ahead of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series First Data 500 at Martinsville Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN/NBC Sports App, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the first race in the Round of 8 — we take a look back at the previous four fall Martinsville races in the elimination-style playoffs format. All produced incredible wins and epic celebrations, with long-lingering impacts. We expect the same on Sunday.

Today, we look back at Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2014 victory.

The scene

It was the first year of NASCAR’s elimination-style format, and drivers still were getting accustomed to the strategies and nuances of the 16-driver postseason. Title favorites Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Jeff Gordon were still in the playoffs as the series moved to Martinsville. Upstart Joey Logano joined the three title favorites in the Round of 8, along with Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Matt Kenseth and the plucky Ryan Newman. Others, like regular-season points stalwarts Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr., had been eliminated following the Round of 12 due to car issues at Kansas.

Harvick was widely considered the championship favorite, as he and crew chief Rodney Childers — both in their first year together at Stewart-Haas Racing — were in the midst of a season for the ages. Jeff Gordon looked like the Jeff Gordon of old, and Keselowski and Logano gave Team Penske a powerful 1-2 punch.

Newman represented the wild card of the group, as he was one of just two drivers — along with Kenseth — in the Round of 8 without a victory.

PHOTOS: Dale Jr. through the years

The action

Gordon controlled the first half of the race among the playoff contenders, leading 105 circuits in the first 250 laps despite qualifying 15th. One of the best racers in the garage on the unique .526-mile layout, it appeared to be Gordon’s race to lose early as he battled with non-playoff driver Jamie McMurray at the front of the pack.

Harvick, meanwhile, struggled at a venue that hadn’t been kind to him over the years. A 33rd-place qualifying effort didn’t help, but neither did the speed in his No. 4 machine.

Keselowski, a strong short-track racer, had an issue with fewer than 100 laps to go and was caught up in a calamitous wreck that sent his mangled car to the garage. It resulted in an eventual 31st-place finish for the driver of the No. 2.

With those two titans out of the picture, a final late-race wreck stacked the field back up for a restart and set the stage for a magical ending. Tony Stewart  led a small group of drivers to stay out on old tires, with Earnhardt Jr. and Gordon behind them as the first drivers with fresh rubber.

In a five-lap sprint to the finish, Junior bumped his way to the front and moved past Tony Stewart, and Gordon followed suit.

RELATED: See full race results

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrates at Martinsville
Jeff Zelevansky | Getty Images

The winner

The final three laps consisted of Gordon chasing down his Hendrick Motorsports teammate, but not quite being able to catch him. Dale Jr. won his first Martinsville race and earned his first grandfather clock, capping a four-win season that was his best in years.

“When we won there, just … I had been trying to get that win for so long,” Earnhardt Jr. said earlier this year. “And everybody wants a clock. … It’s a hard race to win. It’s an easy track to have the best car and get beat.”

The celebration

The impact

Dale Jr. would go on to win three more times in his career, but this was one he cites to this day as his most memorable. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick exited Martinsville well below the cutoff line and needing a win over the next two races to qualify for Miami. That led to a gutsy, risky move from Keselowski the next week at Texas that ensnared Gordon in a wreck, sending the drivers and pit crews into a fistfight on pit road.

Kevin Harvick would rally to win at Phoenix and go on to win the title, while Ryan Newman bumped Gordon by a single position at Phoenix to qualify for the championship race — the same one position Gordon was short at Martinsville.