If Martinsville Speedway was anything to Dale Earnhardt Jr., it was the girl who flirted with him but never would agree to a date.
No matter how hard he tried, regardless of the affection he had for her, she’d shut the door right when he thought he was in. What’s more, she usually preferred a teammate. After 29 rejections in 15 years, he admitted this week on his podcast, The Dale Jr. Download on Dirty Mo Radio, that he began warming up to the fact that winning at Martinsville might never happen.
“After all these years, you keep trying and trying and trying,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You get so close, and you wonder if maybe that’s it. Close is all you’ll ever get.”
Martinsville’s constant rejection was uneasy to digest because, statistically, Martinsville is Earnhardt Jr.’s best track. His 12.4 average finish there is second only to Atlanta’s 12.3, but considering he has top-10 finishes in 57 percent and top-fives in 40 percent of his Martinsville races, those are numbers Atlanta can’t touch.
Those numbers would be inspiring if only they had helped him win one — just one — clock. Instead, they were heart-breaking. But then Sunday happened.
As he said on Dirty Mo Radio, he knew his teammate, Jeff Gordon, had a better car, but Junior added, “I’ve had the best car there before and not won the race. A lot of things have to line up at exactly the right time.”
He would know. In 2003 he led the most laps (195), but Ricky Craven’s lapped car experienced mechanical problems and knocked Junior’s Chevrolet toward the wall, causing both to lose spots. He fought back to finish third. Gordon won the race.
A year later he returned to Martinsville and led 155 laps only to finish third again and watch Rusty Wallace win his seventh grandfather clock.
In 2006, Junior drove most of the race with half of his front fender missing after an early wreck and seven unscheduled pit stops. He drove it back to fourth. And then he wrecked again. And drove it back to fourth again, only this time with twice as much damage. It was one of the best drives of his career, though it largely goes unnoticed.
And who could forget the race in 2011 when Junior took the lead with 20 laps to go before Kevin Harvick ran him down on new tires and passed him on lap 497 of 500?
Martinsville, the flirt. The heart-breaker. She made you hate that you loved her. And yet on Sunday, she finally said yes. Who knew that for a track known for clocks, all she needed was time.
“I’m so amazed that I’ll get to wake up every day and come downstairs and see a Martinsville grandfather clock in my living room, in my home,” Earnhardt said. “It's going to be fun growing old with that damn thing.”
Mike Davis has been a NASCAR publicist for 14 years and is the director of communications for Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s JR Motorsports. Follow him at JRMracing.com and on Twitter at @MikeDavis88.