Dale Earnhardt Jr. poised for Martinsville breakthrough

Nick Laham

Dale Earnhardt Jr. secured the Sprint Cup Series points lead at Auto Club Speedway two weeks ago with a second-place finish following the violent last-lap accident between Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin that also saw Kyle Busch return to victory lane.

The runner-up finish gave Earnhardt Jr. five straight top-10s and a 12-point lead over Brad Keselowski to start the season but NASCAR's most popular driver has yet to visit victory lane.

A victory could happen as early as this weekend at Martinsville Speedway, which has silently become one of Earnhardt Jr.'s better tracks. That's a pretty unbelievable fact considering Earnhardt was self-admittedly terrible at the Virginia half-mile in his first few seasons in the Sprint Cup Series.

Earnhardt Jr. finished no better than 11th in his first four races at the Speedway including three finishes outside of the top-20. He hit everything there was to hit, including an ambulance in that first year, he explained during Tuesday's NASCAR CAM teleconference.

"It was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short track driver," Earnhardt said. "I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast and this should be where I exceled the most...

"It took me a few trips to really learn to be more patient and to let the race sort of come to me -- that the track is going to come and go, the balance of the car is going to change, that you don't do all your work in the first 100 laps, and you've sort of got to wait out the competition and let your crew make good choices and good strategy that keeps you in the thick of things and then have an opportunity at the end."

Earnhardt Jr. learned that lesson during the first half of his career and has really become one of the best short track drivers in the sport. That's especially true at Martinsville where he has four top-10 finishes in his last five starts and easily could have won the spring race in 2011 where he was leading late over eventual winner Kevin Harvick.

Time has clearly made all the difference for the Hendrick Motorsports driver.

"Those first few trips were a real eye opener," Earnhardt said. "The racing there is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of racetracks. It's just really tough and hard racing, and you've got to pick your battles."

The graphic below was provided by NASCAR Statistics and shows just how close Earnhardt Jr. is to breaking through and winning his first Martinsville Grandfather Clock. Is this the year Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally wins on the Virginia half-mile?

Dale-earnhardt-jr-martinsville-graphic_medium

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