Martinsville Speedway is known as one of the toughest places to win. The .526 mile, paperclip shaped track with long straightaways coupled with tight, almost flat corners create a recipe for hard-nosed, fender-banging action.
It is rare for a racecar to leave Martinsville without some damage. More often than not, the damage is significant. Fortunately, for drivers, aerodynamics are not nearly as important here as it is at larger tracks. That fact allows drivers to beat and bang, knock competition out of the way, and still maintain a high possibility of winning.
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., he has yet to find victory lane at the Southern Virginia track, though he has long desired to. Earnhardt Jr., son of the legendary seven time series champion, Dale Earnhardt, talked about his desire to win at Martinsville on Friday saying, “Yeah, this is a track I have been trying to get a win at for a long time. I grew up in a house full of clocks (referring to his father’s six win at the track) so it’s been pretty elusive.” The Grandfather Clock trophy the track is famous for, has become a symbol of accomplishment for drivers.
Earnhardt Jr. has performed well at Martinsville, but has never had every ingredient at the right time to score the victory. Earnhardt commented, “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.”
Earnhardt Jr. has 28 starts at Martinsville, and coming into this weekend, has accumulated 15 top-10 finishes, ten top-five finishes and has led 868 laps.
Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports teammates, Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson, have been very successful at Martinsville. Gordon has eight wins and 34 top-10’s in 42 starts. Johnson also has eight wins and has scored 21 top-10’s in just 24 starts, including a win in the spring race last year. When asked what he takes from them to apply to his set-up at Martinsville, Earnhardt Jr. responded, “We use a program called dart fish where basically it overlaps my lap with another car. Maybe we look at the guys who sat on the pole or qualified in the top three and then look at my qualifying lap. I can do that for last year, the year before, we can go as far back pretty much as we want and see what the guys are doing differently.” He continued, “As far as my teammates go I’m out on the track with them. I know their tendencies and it depends on how their car is driving and how their car is handling as to how they are going to run, drive the corner and approach each corner.”
Earnhardt has come close to winning several times at Martinsville. He talked about the one that “got away,” saying, “I think you look at all of them and see how close you came. We flat got out ran by Kevin (Harvick) that one year 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 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.”
Shoving and moving are many times a necessity at the famed half-mile. Given the new rules implemented for this season, aggression may be more prevalent than ever. Earnhardt has always been a smooth and consistent driver. He is not known for being aggressive. He has already visited victory lane this season and almost found it a second time with an aggressive strategy call. The renewed vigor that Earnhardt is showing, coupled with NASCAR’s new rules that reward winning, may be the final pieces of the puzzle that he needs to begin filling his home with clocks… just like his dad.