Dale Earnhardt Jr. will be heading this week to Martinsville Speedway — the site of one of his most cherished victories.
The former racing great, who is in his second year as a NASCAR analyst for NBC, won the fall Cup race at Martinsville in 2014.
“That was a pretty big deal to me,” Earnhardt, 45, said last week in a phone interview. “I always felt like the Daytona 500 was the biggest race you could win in your career. And when you accomplish that biggest goal — whatever that is — you start to look at the next accomplishment that you would like to have.
“I’ve been going to the races since I was a little boy, so I’ve been to these racetracks forever, it seems like, and had great experiences at those racetracks as a kid running around, … watching my father race. Martinsville, like a lot of the tracks that were close to home [in North Carolina], was one of the races that I would often get to go to. Typically, we couldn’t go to a lot of the races … because of school and whatnot, but we never missed Martinsville. I just have a great connection to it.”
So he wanted to win a grandfather clock, which goes to the winner of a Martinsville race.
“The trophy that they give out is unique. Not all the racetracks give out a unique trophy,” he said. “It’s a sought-after item. You might not even like grandfather clocks or care about grandfather clocks growing up. You may have never wanted to own one. But you want that one. I grew up in a house that had a few in there from Dad’s wins at Martinsville, and so I always wanted one.
“So next to winning the Daytona 500 — the all-star race was great, I’ve had a lot of great things happen to me — but that was a really great moment. It’s a tough little race — 500 laps around a short, short, little, rough racetrack. You can beat and bang and get into a lot of trouble there if you’re not careful. Have a little too much fun if you’re not careful. I had a lot of opportunities to win it and … I was lucky to be able to pull it off one day.”
Earnhardt, who will be in the booth for the NBC Sports Network telecast of Sunday’s First Data 500, keeps his grandfather clock in his home.
“I have a lot of trophies. … A majority of these trophies are kept at JR Motorsports in a bunch of cases. But there’s a couple I keep in my house — the two Daytona 500 wins, the Bristol Cup win in ’04 and the Martinsville trophy. And there’s maybe one or two more,” he said. “I probably over time will take trophies out of the house. … But I don’t know if I’ll ever … put that clock outside of my own living space. It’s something I want to be reminded of.”
Earnarhdt has another fond memory of Martinsville. It is not from a race but rather from a visit he made there for a testing session.
“I brought an Airstream [trailer] that I have — it’s a little, short, 25-foot Airstream. And I parked it up on the hill at the top of the back straightaway,” he said. “When everybody left after 5 o’clock after the first day and went to the hotel, I was in that Airstream looking out of the window out over the back straightaway across the whole racetrack. And it was completely empty.
“It was sort of a surreal moment, visual, to spend the night at that track alone. … If the track’s a thing and it breathes and it has a personality and it’s a living thing, it was a fun experience being there because we’re never at these racetracks when they’re empty.”
The racetrack won’t be empty this weekend when the Monster Energy Cup Series comes to town.
Earnhardt, who has enjoyed 13 top-five finishes in Cup races at Martinsville, said it took him a long time to learn how to race there.
“You can run the car too hard to where the equipment that you have at the end of the race may not be as crisp,” he said. “The stopping power and the ability to really charge the corner and use the brakes really hard may not be quite as good if you’re tussling the car too much in those first 100 laps.
“Save a lot of that ability in the car for those final 100 laps when you really have to push. Because no matter what, you’re going to drive the car completely different in the last 100 laps than you’ve driven it all day. … You’re going to charge the corner harder. You’re going to try to get in the gas sooner. You’re going to try to ask that car to do things better than it’s done all weekend. And if you don’t have the stopping power and the crisp brake pedal, … it’s not going to do any of that as well as you want.
“My habit initially when I used to race there was if the car would fire off fast, I ran it as hard as it would go. I was probably doing way too much too soon in the first half of those races. As I got older, I realized how I needed to take … opportunities in the race to take care of the car and save some of that ability that the car needs late in the race to be able to challenge those guys on those late restarts.
“You can get into a mode about halfway through that race when there’s a long green-flag run and you can lift at the flag stand, use probably more than 50 percent less brake pressure and run about the same lap time. Now, you can’t do that late in the race because if you lift at the flag stand, somebody’s going to drive underneath you. … But in the middle part of the race is when you get those opportunities to back off early and take care of the brakes.”
Earnhardt figures Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch are strong candidates to win at Martinsville on Sunday.
Next spring, Martinsville will hold a Cup race under the lights for the first time.
“Short-track racing and Saturday night go hand in hand,” Earnhardt said. “Running at night at a short track to me is as American as baseball and apple pie.”