Dale Earnhardt Jr, got to go home from Martinsville early Sunday. And that’s not a good thing. NASCAR’s most popular driver won at NASCAR shortest track in the fall of 2014. But beyond that has had a contentious relationship with the track. In in the three races since that win leading up to Sunday, Earnhardt had finished outside the top 10 (14, 36), and fourth here in the fall of 2015.
Sunday didn’t help those stats.
Earnhardt started 21st and was working his way forward when he spun on lap 123 after contact with Ryan Blaney. The two had famously feuded after issues during the race at Phoenix.
There was “no harm, no foul” Sunday at Martinsville as Earnhardt suffered no damage and was able to continue.
In fact, by lap 171, Earnhardt was fifth, thanks in part to pit strategy. He was holding steady in the top five but during pit stops on lap 392, Earnhardt was penalized for speeding. The crew also reported a possible loose lugnut and he was forced back in.
It went from bad to worse.
On lap 414 just after a restart, Earnhardt deep in the field was swept up in an accident that started when Denny Hamlin and Danica Patrick got together in turn 3. Earnhardt got into the back of his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne. The damage to Earnhardt’s Chevy was too severe and he was done for the day. Earnhardt was scored 34th.
Despite the finish, Earnhardt could still smile, and joke.
“I love this place,” he said. “It was a lot of fun today. The car was really good. Greg (Ives, crew chief) and the guys made a lot of changes last night and made our car way better. I must have sped on pit road. They said it was in the segment right after our pit stall, so I must have gotten a good launch out of there. And, uh, hanging around John Force too much, or something, I don’t know. I don’t know how you speed in little segment just coming out of the pit box, but we must have. It got us in the back and we got bottled-up there in (Turn) 3 and they’re ain’t no bumpers on these cars. It knocked the radiator out of it. So, we’re out of the race. We went to the garage to try to fix it, but can’t with the new rules. So, we’re done. I was having a good time. But, I’m disappointed with the way we’re finishing. We’ve got to finish better than this.”
“They just stopped and I couldn’t,” he added. “I got into the back of the No. 5 (Kasey Kahne). His bumper knocked the top of the radiator off of it, knocked the fitting off the top of the radiator. We don’t have much of a bumper on there to begin with keeping the cars as light as we can and that is about the second or third time I’ve knocked the top off the radiator here. I wish they were a little tougher than that, so we could beat and bang and keep going.”
And despite his finish, Earnhardt is still a fan of NASCAR’s shortest track with the addition of stage racing.
“It feels like the same old Martinsville,” Earnhardt said. “I love it. I was having a great time. Good hard racing out there. Got turned around, got back toward the front, leaning on guy, a lot of fun. Everybody is having a good time out there.”