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NASCAR Martinsville 2014 recap: Dale Earnhardt Jr. finally wins grandfather clock

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Martinsville win carried special meaning for reasons that go beyond just what happened on the track.

Jonathan Moore

Rejoicing on the Martinsville Speedway frontstretch were a son who had lost a father and a man who had also experienced great loss. The scene made Sunday's race one of the more emotional in recent memory.

Ever since he was a young boy Dale Earnhardt Jr. wanted a grandfather clock, which is awarded to the winner of a Martinsville race. When he was a child Earnhardt would conduct makeshift races with Matchbox cars in front of one of the clocks his famous father had won while the NASCAR radio broadcast played in the background.

The clock's dinging a constant reminder of its stature as one of the more cherished trophies in NASCAR.

Earnhardt desperately wanted a grandfather clock of his own, but in 29 previous Martinsville starts he had come up short. But all that changed Sunday thanks to sound pit strategy by crew chief Steve Letarte accompanied by a tenacious charge by Earnhardt from fifth to first over the final seven laps.

An elated Earnhardt finally had the trophy he most coveted.

"I'm going to put it somewhere where I see it every day," Earnhardt said. "I want to put it just inside the front door where you got to walk around the damn thing when you come in the house."

Said Letarte: "He brings it up basically anytime Martinsville is in the conversation. He talks about winning a clock a lot.  Now hopefully, when I'm at his house having a cold one we'll listen to the chime 10 years from now and smile."

Meeting Earnhardt in victory lane was Rick Hendrick, who himself was experiencing a cavalcade of emotions related to past Martinsville experiences.

"I could feel how important it was to him and his embrace, when he would hug me," Earnhardt said. "You just know there's a genuine hug and there's a hug. His was the real deal."

Martinsville had long held significant meaning for the team owner. It had been where in 1984 his fledgling team on the brink of closure won for the first time, allowing it to stay solvent.

But it was also the site of a far more tragic event, 10 years ago this past weekend. That was when a Hendrick Motorsports plane crashed en route to Martinsville, killing all 10 onboard. Among those who perished included Hendrick's son, brother, two nieces and key team personnel.

It's why Earnhardt, for reasons other than his own, wanted to contribute to that legacy. Because if anyone could relate on some level it would be Earnhardt, whose father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., was killed on the final lap of the 2001 Daytona 500.

"On other anniversaries, you really don't have to remember as much or reflect as much," Earnhardt said. "But when it sort of hits these particular anniversaries, like the 10th, you feel like you need to stand up and recognize and acknowledge.

"There's a part of you that loves to celebrate those 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."

It's also why, according to Letarte, Hendrick places so much emphasis on Martinsville. Since 2004, Hendrick drivers have won 11 of the past 20 races.

To run well and win at the Virginia short track means more than most anywhere. A victory gives the organization a chance to honor those who were lost and help build Hendrick into the empire it is today.

"Every Victory Lane I've ever been a part of since the accident, we make sure we wear our Hendrick hat backwards for a picture," Letarte said. "Some of the newer guys, I think they kind of understand. But when you look around, there's a group of us that have been around for a long time and I think we really get it."