His smile is infectious and his exuberance contagious. Nowhere was that more evident than in victory lane after Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally won at Martinsville Speedway. He’s an unexpected combination of vulnerability and a hidden strength born of tragedy that endears him to not only his fans but his fellow competitors as well. When Earnhardt wins it’s difficult not to get caught up in his joy.
He grew up at racetracks all over the country but Martinsville and the iconic grandfather clock given to its winners has always held a special place in his heart as it conjures memories of his Dad.
“Been coming here so many years,” Earnhardt begins, painting a picture as he remembers. “I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. As 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 still really can’t believe it,” he continued. “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.”
The victory comes one week after Earnhardt was eliminated from NASCAR Sprint Cup championship contention after failing to advance to the Eliminator Round. In a year that began with a second Daytona 500 trophy, it was a surprising twist in a season that held such promise. Although he’s disappointed, the win at Martinsville, his fourth this year, serves as affirmation that the future is bright for this team.
“I don’t believe in fairytales, Earnhardt said. “It’s only destiny in hindsight, you know. This wasn’t our year. It’s only magical after the fact when you see it happen. But it just wasn’t our year, man. It feels good not to sit there and watch everybody else just finish the year off. I’m glad we were able to get a win, remind ourselves that if we keep working hard, keep trying, maybe we will win the championship like we want to.”
The victory was even more poignant as it was ten years ago that a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed, killing all ten passengers aboard while en route to Martinsville Speedway, including team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, brother and two nieces.
As the two men hugged in victory lane, it was impossible to miss the heartfelt bond that they share.
“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 observed. He went on to say, “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.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s life has been shaped by both triumph and tragedy. But on this day, he chooses to savor the good times with a passion that is irresistible. He may have fallen short of his goal to become a NASCAR Sprint Cup Champion this season but there’s always next year. And, if that dream becomes a reality, it’s going to be one hell of a party.