Ten years. That’s how long since the Hendrick Motorsports plane crash, near Martinsville, which took the lives of 10 innocent victims. Among them were owner Rick Hendrick’s son, Ricky, and brother John; nieces Kimberly and Jennifer, engine builder Randy Dorton, Hendrick GM Jeff Turner, a DuPont executive and three pilots, two of which were at the controls. It was a tragedy that devastated the four-car organization, whose driver Jimmie Johnson won the race without knowing the darkness that unfolded in the hills behind the racetrack.
Thirteen years. That’s how long since NASCAR’s biggest draw of the last generation, Dale Earnhardt Sr., had something go so terribly wrong on the last lap of the Daytona 500. As the No. 3 headed toward the wall, a sport lost its leader, the man whose legend — both on the track and after his death — led to NASCAR’s unprecedented growth. But most importantly, a family, including a son crowned the successor to the throne, lost a patriarch.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t with Hendrick Motorsports when that fateful crash occurred. But he didn’t need to be. Human tragedy, while occurring at different times and in different places, has a way of bonding people forever, fusing them in ways few common experiences ever can.
“The 10th anniversary sort of has you reflecting and remembering,” Earnhardt said. “On other anniversaries, you really don’t have to remember or reflect as much. But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the 10th, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge. You do. You want to. There’s a part of you that loves to celebrate these people’s lives. But there’s the other half of you that can’t forget the loss.
“Losing my dad was difficult. I can’t imagine that loss that he (Hendrick) went through, his family went through, the whole organization. All those people at one time. It just has to be unbelievable to have to deal with that.”
Sunday was a day of great joy for HMS, as it should have been. Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon led a 1-2 finish for the company and the former quickly led a raucous celebration. The team was drinking in Victory Lane, talking over kegstands and party planning shortly after the checkered flag flew.
But underneath it all, the excitement and their success story were subtle remembrances of who was lost. Hats were worn backwards in Victory Lane, just like Ricky used to do. All who interviewed paused for a second, changed their tone, and paid their respects. After all, tragedy allows us to heal but never forget.
“Martinsville is a high conversation at our company,” said Earnhardt’s crew chief Steve Letarte. “We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard.
“I’m blessed to have a great family with two healthy children. Those are the lessons that people that work for Rick learn. The great things he does very few people write about because they’re hard to write about, they’re hard to understand.”
Everyone understood on Sunday. And as an HMS car entered Victory Lane, every fan at Martinsville Speedway stood up and cheered — no matter what team they rooted for.
This sport doesn’t work any other way.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Earnhardt erases bad Chase memories
For Dale Earnhardt Jr., the 2014 Chase has been difficult. In his last season paired with crew chief Steve Letarte and entering the playoffs with three victories, it seemed like the stars were aligned for a championship run. Just three races ago, the No. 88 team entered in as a title favorite. But a blown tire,while leading started a three-week nightmare that included a broken shifter, another wreck, and getting kicked out of the playoffs far too early. Without the postseason reset, this team would be third in points; instead, it’s currently sitting outside the top 10.
Winning Martinsville, a place Earnhardt has openly targeted for years, helped heal that wound. At age 40, he finally broke through by earning a Grandfather clock — one of the sport’s most coveted trophies. It was some masterful driving down the stretch, charging from fifth with five laps to go after giving up the lead for fresh tires.
“It wasn’t hard to make,” Letarte said of the call. “But it was nerve-wracking to watch.”
Luckily for him, Earnhardt took less than two laps to push his way back to the front. Rolling by Tony Stewart, who took a chance on old tires, the No. 88 breezed to victory over Gordon. It was a good moment for NASCAR, as team orders never came into play; a victory here would have given the No. 24 team an automatic ticket to the Final Four in Homestead.
“He was fast enough all day that he could run us down if the race continued,” claimed Earnhardt. “I would have been pissed.”
Instead, he’ll wind up 2014 with four victories, his most in a decade, and feel pleased about all the success he’s had this season … as he should be.
SECOND GEAR: Kevin Harvick is maaaad
Kevin Harvick, perhaps the most dominant car up front this season, saw his title hopes turn desperate at Martinsville. It was fellow Chaser Matt Kenseth who caused the crisis, wheel-hopping into Turn 1 and inciting a wreck that turned the No. 4 car into a pile of mush. Harvick lost 40 laps despite virtually half of Stewart-Haas Racing working on the car. A 33rd-place finish left him eighth in points, 28 behind fourth-place Kenseth and a virtual lock to miss the Chase unless the team can win at Texas or Phoenix.
“(Kenseth) will not win this championship,” said Harvick afterward. “I can promise you that.”
Even crew chief Rodney Childers talked a little trash after the race, venting frustration on a season that’s been this type of roller coaster for the No. 4 bunch. If it had any luck at all — and fewer self-induced mistakes — the team would be sitting with eight, potentially nine victories this season.
Instead, it’s a crew in desperation mode once again, causing an anger Kenseth claimed he understood.
“I don't blame (Harvick) for feeling that way, honestly," he said. "It was a mistake — he was an innocent bystander and was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I totally understand how he feels and I totally understand why he would say that. I totally get it. He knows it was a mistake, too, but that doesn't really help him. I don't really blame him.”
The only question for Kenseth is whether that blame from Harvick turns into outright revenge, the type that will keep the No. 20 car on the sidelines for Homestead.
THIRD GEAR: Hello, Newman
What do Earnhardt and Ryan Newman have in common? The number four. Earnhardt has four victories and is eliminated from title contention. Newman? After a third at Martinsville, he has four top-5 finishes this season but is second in points and could be your champion after Homestead.
“It’s played to our advantage the entire time as far as not having a win, not having bonus points,” he said about the new format. “Even if you’re eight of 12 or 16, you’re still getting caught up, making free points that they’re giving you to be tied to the next bracket.”
That means Newman, who was tied for the lowest seed entering the playoffs, is riding consistency all the way to a title shot. With five straight finishes of eighth or better, the team is on a roll, positioned well enough to advance even if it doesn’t win a race. It would be NASCAR’s title nightmare: a winless driver with less than 50 laps led all season taking the championship. But it’s one small step closer to reality.
FOURTH GEAR: Keselowski digs another hole
Joining Harvick in the desperation department is Brad Keselowski, who’s used to it after winning Talladega in order to advance. This time, it was a broken gear that left the No. 2 team scrambling, causing a sudden slowdown on track and a wreck that involved Kasey Kahne, Casey Mears and Carl Edwards, among others.
“It’s not the day we want by any means, but the guys did a great job,” Keselowski said. “They put a gear in this car in 28 laps at Martinsville, that’s pretty phenomenal but it was just unfortunate the way the day played out.”
Past experience should help Keselowski, and Team Penske has been the strongest organization across the board during this postseason. But walking the plank once is hard enough. Twice? That’s going to be a very tough task; keep in mind he has no career wins at Texas or Phoenix.
Martinsville, with 15 caution flags over 105 laps, had its share of wrecks, including two red flags. But it also featured consistent, hard racing, 24 lead changes, and easily one of the most exciting finishes all season. Why the sport doesn’t drop a 1.5-mile oval, or at least a race from one in favor of another short track — think Iowa — is beyond me. … Underdog David Ragan snuck away with a 10th-place finish, using old tires and pit strategy to pull through. In a decade of competition, it’s the first top-10 result for his Front Row Motorsports team outside of Daytona and Talladega. … Kasey Kahne and Brian Vickers had an on-track feud in which both drivers spun the other out and then played the blame game before NASCAR put a stop to it all. Vickers has a history of losing it at Martinsville, including a crazy series of incidents in the fall of 2011. But rewinding the tape shows it’s Kahne who appeared to be the culprit. With both drivers having little at stake, the rest of the season it’s possible their bad blood will resurface at Phoenix.
Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.