It Took Some Time, But Earnhardt Jr. Figured Out Martinsville Speedway
When Dale Earnhardt Jr. rolls into Martinsville Speedway Friday morning for the STP® Gas BoosterTM 500 weekend, he will have to feel good about his chances. Statistically, Martinsville is Earnhardt's best track.
It hasn't always been that way for Earnhardt, who comes into this weekend leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup standings and off to the best start of his career.
"I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything," recalled Earnhardt. "I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything that could be ran into, I found it.
"And you know, it was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short-track driver and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most."
The tale of Earnhardt even hitting an ambulance at Martinsville early in his career, well, it's not a tale.
"The ambulance wouldn't move, so I had to give him a bit of the bumper," said Earnhardt. "You know, it's just ... it was so funny because we were ... I remember I was taking a helicopter ride (home) with my dad and Michael Waltrip and I ran over everything and finally Dad was like, man, tell that kid to park it.
"But somewhere in the race I had started on the inside a lap down and I took off and yarded the leader by a straightaway. I was so proud of myself and that's the only thing I took away from the race, and I kept trying to talk about that on the way home, but all Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks."
And somewhere along the way, he figured out the track nicknamed "the paperclip" because of its unusual shape. It's his best track in terms of driver rating (99.8) and laps led (868). Martinsville is tied for first among tracks in top fives (10) for Earnhardt and second best in top 10s (14).
He finished third in last spring's race here and has finished second twice.
"It took me a few trips to really learn to be more patient, to let the race sort of come to me," Earnhardt said of Martinsville. "That 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 also has a great appreciation for Martinsville Speedway's place in the sport.
"Just driving into the racetrack, helicoptering into the racetrack, you get a good sense just being able to see it all from one point of view, seeing the entire complex," said Earnhardt. "But when we drive up in the morning, just turning into that road, nothing has changed. You park your car in the driveway of the first house on the corner. That house has been there for I don't know how many years, just everything about the entrance and your first impressions bring you back to the mid-‘70s. The only thing that really reminds you of where you're at and what decade it is the model of the cars in the parking lot and all the souvenir rigs and all that stuff going on.
"I love race tracks like that every track has something about it that you like or some characteristic about it that you enjoy. But Martinsville is just a fun place, really fun track to race on and I think the fans get a great event."
Tickets for the STP® Gas BoosterTM 500, the Kroger 250 and Martinsville Pole Day may be purchased by calling 877.RACE.TIX or by visiting www.martinsvillespeedway.com online.