In the closing laps at Martinsville on Sunday, it looked as if Dale Earnhardt Jr. was about to find his way back to victory lane after an absence that stretched all the way back to Michigan in June of 2008. Junior took over the lead on lap 480 after giving Kyle Busch a bump that moved him up the track and gave the crowd what they wanted when he was able to slip under and be within 20 laps of winning his 19th race of his career.
It had been over two long seasons since Earnhardt fans had the opportunity to cheer their driver to a victory and the anticipation had what looked like the majority of fans in the Virginia track’s stands on their feet in approval. This kind of finish was what his team owner Rick Hendrick had in mind when he swapped crew chiefs among three of his four teams back in November, moving Jeff Gordon’s crew chief Steve Letarte to take over the same position for Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr., with Letarte in his ear, hung onto the lead for the next 16 laps, but it was during those laps that Kevin Harvick began making his move up through the field. Harvick had won the previous week at California by taking the lead on a last lap pass and it appeared that he was going to be in position to repeat the task as he quickly came up on the rear bumper of Busch only to easily make that pass and set his sights on Earnhardt Jr.
Only four laps remained when Harvick steered his Chevrolet underneath Earnhardt Jr. to go on and win his second consecutive race of the season, making him the only driver to have multiple wins on the year. It was a tough way to lose a race, especially when it had been over two years since you had won a race.
While second place may have been a major disappointment to Earnhardt Jr., it was the third time in the first six races of the season that he has finished in the top 10. The runner-up finish also moved him four places up in the point standings to eighth, an improvement of four spots. He now trails Kyle Busch who sits at the top by 20 points, and it appears that he and Letarte may be generating some momentum as they head to Texas, which is the track where he scored his first-ever Sprint Cup victory in 2000.
It’s hard to say that the sport needs a certain driver to be successful, but there is no denying that the Earnhardt Nation, as his loyal fans are called, carries a big stick within the sport. Listen at driver’s introductions before the race and see the kind of reception he gets when his name is called. The way the fans reacted when he took the lead at Martinsville can only give us a glimpse of what it might be like if he begins to once again find his way back to victory lane on a regular basis.
Earnhardt Jr. once again winning races will not cure all the problems of NASCAR, but you can’t help but believe that such a sight would put a few more people in the stands and a few more turning their televisions on come race day. If he can create that kind of reaction from the crowd by just leading 16 out of the last 20 laps on Sunday, just think what it could do if he could just lead the last lap at any track.
PIT NOTES: This Saturday night Texas Motor Speedway will be hosting its first-ever night race in the 16-year history of the mile and a half track. When looking for a favorite to win in this historic race, Denny Hamlin is the first driver to come to mind as he swept both races last season including the spring race that was his first win after having knee surgery to repair a torn ACL. A repeat trip to victory lane this Saturday night would be just as sweet as Hamlin and his Joe Gibbs Racing team have gotten off to a rough start as they sit in the 19th position in the standings with only one top-10 finish on the season. Hamlin’s hopes were high at Martinsville as well as he returned there last weekend as the defending champion after sweeping both races in the 2010 season. He posted a 12th-place finish on Sunday. It was not the kind of showing that he was looking for, but he was able to run up front and pick up a bonus point. That does show some improvement on what has been a terrible year so far.
Race Preview Event: Samsung Mobile 500 Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile tri-oval, 24 degrees of banking in the turns) Date: April 9, 7:30 p.m. TV: FOX Radio: PRN Defending Champion: Denny Hamlin