Sometimes disappointment is overcome by achievement.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had to be disappointed when he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup after six of 10 races.
It wasn’t a big surprise, really. Earnhardt Jr.’s Hendrick Motorsports team had not really been on top of its game since the beginning of the 10-race “playoff.”
Earnhardt Jr. had only one top-10 finish in the first five races and it was that fifth event, at Kansas, that did him in.
Tire problems helped send him to a 39th-place finish. That tumbled him to the bottom of the pile of 12 drivers still in the Chase.
He had to win at either Charlotte or Talladega. He finished 20th at Charlotte, which did not help his cause.
And despite a noble effort at Talladega where he led 31 laps and remained at the front of the pack most of the time, he lost position late in the race and couldn’t make it up.
He finished 28th – and was eliminated from championship contention.
It must have been hard for Earnhardt Jr. to take. He was having a particularly good season. Before the Chase he won three races, including the Daytona 500.
He also won at Pocono twice. Earnhardt Jr. hadn’t won three races in a season since he joined Hendrick in 2008.
On top of that, he was third in points after Richmond, the last race before the Chase began. He was comfortably in title contention.
He had reason to be confident, for sure.
The only thing predictable about racing is that it is unpredictable. Given his record and momentum, I doubt there were many who thought Earnhardt Jr. would be out of the hunt after just six races.
Every driver in Earnhardt Jr.’s situation will say the same thing: If a championship can no longer be attained, the goal now is to win as many of the remaining races at possible.
Earnhardt Jr. was no different. One big reason he wanted to win was to prove that the Chase may have been one thing, but the season-long performance by his Hendrick team was quite another.
And there was only one way to prove it.
Earnhardt Jr. did just that in the next race after his disappointment at Talladega.
He won at Martinsville, a speedway steeped in history and tradition. By doing so, Earnhardt Jr. achieved a goal that was more personal that professional.
Simply put, he won at Martinsville – at last.
“You know, I love the history of the sport and just can’t get enough of like all the pictures on the wall at Martinsville,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport.
“I’ve been coming here so many years, I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won and brought home several Grandfather Clocks.
“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.”
A combination of a strategic pit stop and Earnhardt Jr.’s ability to gain ground quickly was the reason for the victory at Martinsville.
“We just put tires on it, said Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr.’s crew chief. “Luckily we had a lot of lap-down cars between us and fourth and fifth. As long as we had a decent stop, we thought we would maintain some decent track position.
“Then Dale went out and did what he did. That makes the pit call look good, which I appreciate him doing.”
Earnhardt Jr. assumed the lead on lap 497 and led the final four circuits.
Earnhardt Jr. has won bigger, more prestigious races in his career. But he was notably ecstatic over the Martinsville victory.
It was one he had coveted for so long. Add to that it was one that, as far as Earnhardt Jr. was concerned, emphasized his Hendrick team’s solid, season-long performance.
“I think the win reminded the team and the guys what they’re capable of,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “Yeah, we’ve had some bad breaks with the tire at Kansas and just some poor runs where we got outrun.
“Everybody knew it was very disappointing where we were at in the Chase coming into Martinsville.
“But now, we know we can accomplish some really good things and win more races.”
As for Earnhardt Jr., the Martinsville victory is more than just another victory. It’s a personal milestone.
“I couldn’t believe I won,” he said. “I still really can’t believe it. The clock seems so hard to get, so 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 at Martinsville.”