Dale Earnhardt Jr. earned his fourth win of the season on Sunday at Martinsville Speedway in an emotional victory a week after he was eliminated from the Chase for the Sprint Cup championship.
Jeff Gordon was second, giving Hendrick Motorsports a 1-2 finish on the 10-year anniversary weekend of the fatal plane crash that killed 10 people on their way to the speedway. Lost on that day were team owner Rick Hendrick’s son, brother, twin nieces, the team general manger, head engine builder, a key sponsor representative, two Hendrick pilots and a pilot for Tony Stewart.
“This means so much to all of us,” Earnhardt said. “I lost my daddy a long time ago, and I know how hard that is. I can’t imagine losing the amount of people Rick lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend. This honors them.”
Gordon was the highest-finishing Chase driver. Without a Chase driver in Victory Lane, no driver clinched an automatic berth in the Nov. 16 championship finale at Homestead.
“That means so much to Hendrick Motorsports,” Gordon said. “That’s the best way you can possibly pay tribute to those that we lost 10 years ago. To have a 1-2 finish, that’s pretty awesome. I would have loved to have gotten that win to move on to Homestead, but this is certainly a great start for us.”
Chase driver Ryan Newman was third, and Tony Stewart finished fourth. Chase drivers Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth were fifth and sixth.
Running fifth, Stewart gambled and stayed on the track after the race was red-flagged with 10 laps left. Earnhardt and Gordon pitted for fresh tires, and that one final stop was just enough for the successful finish.
“If we had to do that 100 times over, we’d do the same thing,” Stewart said. “We didn’t have anything to lose. It was worth the gamble.
“This is as good as a win to me.”
Other Chase driver results included: Denny Hamlin eighth, Carl Edwards 20th, Brad Keselowski 31st and Kevin Harvick 33rd.
Harvick crashed just past the halfway point when he had contact with Kenseth following a restart. It made for a mixed day for Stewart-Haas Racing: Team co-owner Stewart scored his first top-five finish since March, but Harvick’s championship chances took a huge hit.
Harvick had to take his car to the garage, where crew members from all of SHR’s teams worked furiously to repair the damage and get him back on the track. Even competition director Greg Zipadelli was working on the Chevrolet, which received significant repairs before Harvick returned to the race, down 40 laps.
“Yeah, he won’t win this championship,” Harvick said of Kenseth. “If we don’t, he won’t.”
Added Harvick crew chief Rodney Childers: “He just flat-out wrecked us. It’s a bad decision on his part, for sure.”
Kenseth called the race “one of the lowlights of my career,” and said he understood Harvick’s frustration.
“I don’t blame him for feeling like that, to be honest with you. It was a mistake,” Kenseth said. “He was an innocent bystander, at the wrong place at the wrong time. I totally understand how he feels, I totally understand why he would say that, I totally get it.
“He knows it’s a mistake, too, but that doesn’t really help him. I don’t blame him. He got taken out of the race for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Eight-time Martinsville winner Jimmie Johnson, who was eliminated from the Chase last week, finished 32nd.