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Earnhardt Jr. Holds Off Gordon To Win Martinsville

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 26 2014

Dale Earnhardt Jr. beat Jeff Gordon to the checkered flag at Martinsville on Sunday. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Garry Eller)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t win his first Sprint Cup championship this season but he will head into the off season with at least four race victories.

Earnhardt, who was bumped from the Chase last week when he failed to advance to the Eliminator Round of the series playoffs, held off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon to win Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

The fourth win of the year gave Earnhardt his most victories since 2004 when he won six times while driving for Dale Earnhardt Inc. Most importantly, it gave him a win at the historic Martinsville short track.

“Oh, man,” Earnhardt said, “we’ve been trying to win here for so many years. And this place is so special to me. I’ve wanted to win here so bad. We brought the good cars. I’m out of breath from celebrating more than driving. It’s a real emotional win. This team on pit road was great and Steve (Letarte, crew chief) and the guys did a real good job all day. They gave me a great shot at it there with the call at the end to take tires. I can’t believe we won here. This means so much to all of us. It’s just real emotional.

“We’re going to drink a lot of beer tonight.”

Gordon had the best finish among the remaining eight Chase drivers as he was second.

“Really good finish,” Gordon, who led a race-best 130 of 500 laps, said. “Those last couple laps were just wild.

“Well first of all I have to say what an incredible tribute that is. A 1-2 finish (for Hendrick Motorsports). We know how much the fans love to see Dale Jr. win. They certainly got that today. He did a great job, but for all of those at Hendrick Motorsports that lost friends and family members, people that paid an important in Hendrick Motorsports and in this sport. A 1-2 finish is the best way you can pay tribute to them. It was great effort for our Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet today. I’m proud of the guys. We got behind. I made a big mistake on pit road and was speeding. I knew it. We had to go to the back and claw our way back up in there, so that was a great comeback and a total team effort by everybody.”

Ryan Newman of Richard Childress Racing and a Chase driver was third while owner/driver Tony Stewart was fourth.

Chase drivers Joey Logano and Matt Kenseth were fifth and sixth.

Among other Chasers: Denny Hamlin was eighth and Carl Edwards 20th. The two other Chasers – Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, 31st and 33rd respectively and 28 and 43 laps off the pace respectively because of wrecks and car troubles.

Pole-sitter Jamie McMurray led the first 84 laps. On Lap 85, Gordon took his first lead of the day.

Gordon led until Lap 169 when he was overtaken by McMurray – for one lap. Back out front, Gordon worked his lead up to over a second.

But during a yellow flag stop on 189, Gordon was penalized for speeding on pit road. He was sent to the rear of the field and restarted 30th. Taking the lead for the restart on Lap 205 was Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt gave the lead up to Logano on a restart on Lap 213.

Just after another restart, this one on Lap 226, Chaser Matt Kenseth spun and took out fellow Chaser Kevin Harvick while they were running in the top 10. Harvick’s car slapped the wall and suffered big damage. It had to pushed into the garages.

“The good thing about this (Chase for the Sprint Cup) format is you have two more weeks and two racetracks that we can win on,” Harvick said after the race. “Everybody was so worried about us starting in the back – and we wrecked at the front. Unfortunate.”

Logano gave up the lead when he and most of the rest of the field pitted during a caution on Lap 254. Taking the lead, briefly was Justin Allgaier, who did not pit. He was quickly passed by Tony Stewart, who also did not pit.

On Lap 274, Stewart, on worn tires, gave up the lead to Logano. On Lap 291, Denny Hamlin bumped Logano out of the way to take the lead.

On Lap 294, another caution flag waved. Hamlin and a large group of others pitted. Another large group, led by Earnhardt and Gordon, stayed out.

On Lap 314, Kurt Busch passed Earnhardt for the lead. Twenty laps later, Gordon passed Busch and was once again in the lead. Gordon held the lead until Lap 359, when he was passed by Hamlin.

On Lap 417, a debris caution brought the field into the pits. First out and taking the lead was Clint Bowyer. Earnhardt, Gordon and Hamlin restarted second, third and fourth.

With 65 laps to go in the 500-lap race, another Chaser, Brad Keselowski, took a big hit in points as he broke a rear end gear.

With 47 laps to go, Earnhardt put the bumper to Bowyer and took the lead. Gordon moved past Bowyer into second place with 33 laps to go. But once around Bowyer, Gordon was 1.5 seconds behind leader Earnhardt and laps clicking off.

Earnhardt ran into heavy traffic with 20 laps to go but was able to thread his way through. He appeared headed to victory when a crash with 12 laps to go brought out the red flag.

Earnhardt and all but three others stopped for tires when the pits opened.

Taking the lead was Stewart, who did not stop.

When the race restarted with five to go, Earnhardt was fifth and Gordon eighth.

With four to go, Earnhardt blew past Stewart. Right behind was Gordon. At the white flag, Gordon was two car lengths back and closing. But coming out of the final turn Earnhardt was cool and perfect and got the win.

Then he got emotional.

Adding to the intense emotion of the moment were thoughts of the tragedy of a decade earlier when an airplane carrying Hendrick family members and team members crashed en route to the race. All aboard were killed.

“I lost my daddy (seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr.) a long time ago, and I know how hard that is,” said Earnhardt, who was eliminated from the Chase a week earlier at Talladega. “I can’t imagine losing the magnitude of people that Rick lost. My heart goes out to him during this weekend.

“I love that his cars are good (enough) here to get the victory. So this honors them. I’m just real proud to be able to win at Martinsville in a Hendrick car. They always win here.”

| Managing Editor, RacinToday.com Sunday, October 26 2014
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