Winning at Martinsville Speedway had become something of an obsession for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who despite 30 starts here over the course of 15 seasons of racing in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series has never managed to cross the finish line in first place and win one of the most coveted and surely most unique trophies in motorsport - a grandfather clock.
"I've wanted that grandfather clock ever since I was a little boy and I got it today," he said as he celebrated in victory lane on Sunday after winning the Goody's Headache Relief Shot 500.
"I couldn't believe it. I still really can't believe it. The clock seems so hard to get. This is so special. I try not to get too caught up in the emotion of it because it's a team deal, but this is very personal and very special to me to be able to win here.
"Been coming here so many years," he explained. "I've been coming here since the early 80s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I'd run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network. That clock would ring on the hour. I always wanted one. I came close I think several times."
Earnhardt's crew chief Steve Letarte - who leaves the team at the end of the season for a media role - confirmed just how much winning the clock meant to Earnhardt.
"This place, he talks about it a lot," said Letarte. "Whenever we talk about coming to Martinsville, I think Martinsville is a high conversation at our company. We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard.
"He brings it up basically anytime Martinsville is in the conversation," he added. "Really since Dale and I have worked together, he's always talked about this place. It's just different when he talks about it. Kind of has that twinkle, he really wants that clock.
"There are certain trophies in this sport that have remained the same. It's different, you want to have one," Letarte explained. "He talks about winning a clock a lot. Now hopefully when I'm at his house having a cold one we'll listen to the chime 10 years from now and smile."
It had certainly been hard-won - just as you'd expect at Martinsville, which at a little over a half-mile in length is the shortest track on the calendar for the Cup field which instils a pressure cooker atmosphere meaning that tempers can flare at any time, making it doubly difficult to win through.
"It was a great day, a hard‑fought day," agreed Letarte. "Beating and banging all throughout the field. I think we saw more catastrophic style crashes. You see a lot of sliding around here, but today we saw more serious crashes than we have ever seen. That is what the sport has created. It's stressful. It's high pressure. It's what we want. It was exciting to come out on top."
A key moment in the race came with the final caution, when the team had to decide whether to pit for fresh tyres or risk staying out. Earnhardt risked coming in and dropped to fifth place for the restart, but the superior grip enabled him to charge to the front in the remaining five laps.
"It wasn't hard to make, but it was nerve‑racking to watch," admitted Letarte of the call to bring the #88 for one final stop. "Tyres were very important, without a doubt. They were important all day. We kind of saw it earlier in the race.
"We felt we would feel better losing with tyres [so] we just put tires on it," he added. "As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position. Then Dale has to go out and do what he did - that makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing."
"We had amazing pit stops, had a really smart, good, aggressive strategy by Steve and the engineers," added Earnhardt. "They were giving him great information, giving him confidence to make great choices. At the end the right things had to happen on the restart to get by those guys, and it just sort of did.
"Several years I think the car should have won, but the driver didn't," Earnhardt admitted. "[But] it all worked out. I know by running here so many times that everything has to go right for you. Really at pretty much every race you win, it all has to fall into place. And everything was hitting on all cylinders."
The victory for Earnhardt and the Hendrick Motorsports team came at a significant moment, as Sunday's race was held just four days after the tenth anniversary of a fatal plane crash. Team owner Rick Hendrick lost his son Ricky and brother John, John's daughters Jennifer and Kimberly, HMS general manager Jeff Turner, engine builder Randy Dorton and four others, all of whom were flying to Martinsville for the 2004 Cup race.
Earnhardt wasn't part of the Hendrick team at the time, but has his own experience with enduring grief after losing his father, the iconic Dale Sr., in a race accident at Daytona in 2001.
"I just wanted to support Hendrick Motorsports during that time," recalled Earnhardt. "Everybody in the garage at that time was wearing Hendrick hats. This sport came together. I lost my daddy a long time ago and I know how hard that is. I can't imagine losing the magnitude of people that Rick lost.
"My heart goes out to him during this weekend. I love that his cars are good here to get to victory. So this honours them - I'm just real proud to be able to win at Martinsville in a Hendrick car. They always win here.
"Coming here and winning here at this particular track means a whole lot to this entire organisation," he added. "I have come to know exactly how much all those people are missed in being around Rick and seeing how the tragedy has really affected the organisation. They really try and come here and get this win every year. This is a difficult weekend but yet they want to be victorious.
"This is the tenth anniversary, it's more difficult," he continued. "The tenth anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering. On other anniversaries, you really don't have to remember as much or reflect as much. But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the tenth, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge. You do, you want to. There's a part of you that loves to celebrate those people's lives. But there's the other half of you that can't forget the loss.
"Losing my dad was difficult," Earnhardt admitted. "I can't imagine that loss that [Rick] went through, his family went through, the whole organisation. All those people at one time. It just has to be unbelievable to have to deal with that. I think I've paralleled my loss and his loss until I started working with him, then I started understanding it's quite a bit larger void that it created.
"I think the more years, the more time I spend around the organization, the more I started to understand what that weekend means to the company," he added. "[Today] I could feel how important it was to him. And his embrace, when he would hug me, you just know there's a genuine hug and there's a hug. His was the real deal."
Earnhardt's win this weekend is his fourth victory in 2014. Only once before has he claimed more wins in a single season, when he picked up six trophies in 2004, and a lot of his resurgence in form in the last couple of years has been thanks to a particularly strong partnership with Letarte which makes it even harder know that the partnership has only three more outings to run.
"Working with Steve, a lot of emotions," agreed Earnhardt. "I don't know where he's at, I imagine he's holding it together best he can. I know once we get to Homestead, that sort of end point comes where he knows this is the last race he's going to crew chief, that's going to be very hard for him. We'll be there to support him and hold him up.
"He's excited about his opportunity, excited about what he's going to be doing in his future. I know there's a big part of him that definitely knows, even now today, that he's going to miss what he's doing today. He's going to miss the people and the friendships.
"We'll probably all be bawling like little babies after the race in Homestead," he admitted. " Hopefully we're in victory lane and there will be all kinds of damn emotions running through us.
It was great that I got to work with him. He turned my career around. He put a great team together. What he's accomplished is impressive as hell. I'm overwhelmed with what he's been able to do," Earnhardt said. "He put me in Victory Lane. Like I say, the team he's assembled, incredible group. That's all Steve ... One of the best crew chiefs in the garage."
The duo will have three more chances at Texas, Phoenix and Homestead-Miami to add more silverware to the trophy room before the end of the season.
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