What I learned about NASCAR from Dale Earnhardt’s final Martinsville win

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My NASCAR memories start to come into focus around 1996, a year before I attended my first race at Texas Motor Speedway as a 6-year-old. Even now, most of my NASCAR recollections prior to 2001 get fuzzier by the day.

But boy, did I love NASCAR in the 1990s.

The names, the races, the paint schemes. It’s embedded in my DNA as deep as the Top Gun soundtrack.

But was it really that great? That’s the question I hope to answer with this series, while learning more about the sport.

Why start with the 1995 Goody’s 500? With having covered the STP 500, I’ve had Martinsville on the brain for the last two weeks. The half-mile track is one of five Earnhardt claimed more than five wins at, and the 1995 race was the last one.

Also, the NASCAR of 1995 and 2017 have a couple things in common. Both seasons follow one where a driver won their seventh championship (Dale Earnhardt vs. Jimmie Johnson) and they’re the coming-out parties for the sport’s “youth” (Jeff Gordon vs. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, etc.).

Before we start, here’s a fun fact: There were two Goody’s 500s in 1995. The pain reliever also sponsored the Aug. 26 race at Bristol Motor Speedway (aka Dale Earnhardt vs. Terry Labonte, Part 1). Goody’s first sponsored the fall Martinsville race in 1983 and continues in 2017.


Setting the Stage

When the Winston Cup Series rolled into Martinsville on the weekend of Sept. 24, 1995, Bill Clinton was in his third year as president of the United States.

The air was filled with the sounds of Tim McGraw’s “I Like it, I Love It,” which was enjoying its third of five weeks as the No. 1 country song. Brad Pitt was asking Morgan Freeman “What’s in the box?” in David Fincher’s second film, Seven.

The Goody’s 500 was the 26th of 31 points races on the Cup schedule. Jeff Gordon, in his third full year on the circuit, had been in the points lead since the July 9 race at New Hampshire, 10 races prior.

Dale Earnhardt’s reign of terror was in its twilight. Despite three wins (North Wilkesboro, Sonoma and Indianapolis), he trailed Gordon by 309 points after the No. 24 won the previous week at Dover, his seventh win of the year.

On the afternoon of Sept. 24, the two defining names of NASCAR in the 1990s were on the front row after rain canceled qualifying. Gordon’s “pole” was his ninth of the year. At the time, Earnhardt had five career wins on the short track. Gordon had none.

With ESPN airing the race, Bob Jenkins had the call along with Benny Parsons and Ned Jarrett.


What’s Different – Part 1

In 2017, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing over car counts. After the Daytona 500, only one race has reached the field maximum of 40 entries. Just a few years ago, the maximum amount was 43 cars.

But in the mid-’90s, short tracks had their own rules. A full field was 36 cars. For this race, six entries went home.


Graphic Rules

ESPN’s contributions to auto racing and how it’s presented on TV are immense. But in 1995, the practice of constant on-screen graphics depicting race position was still in its infancy. Here during the opening laps, Jenkins explained to viewers that new contraption up in the left-hand corner.

The race broadcast went to its first commercial on Lap 14 of 500. When it came back, Jenkins read ads for Ford, AC Delco and NASCAR’s 1994 season-in-review VHS tape. This tape can now be bought on eBay for $13, plus shipping and handling. As with any 22-year-old advertisement I see, I’m always tempted to call the toll-free number.

So I did.

It was disconnected.

On Lap 32, the first caution came out due to rain. Earnhardt had a commanding lead over Rusty Wallace, who had won the last three Martinsville races.

I’m all for bringing out the tarps to stay dry when there’s a little moisture, but this is ridiculous. I’ve seen enough movies to know Richard Childress Racing is hiding an alien or an ancient artifact under there somewhere. My money is on an alien.

During the caution, everyone’s favorite pit road reporter, Dr. Jerry Punch, interviewed Childress. Andy Petree was Earnhardt’s crew chief at the time, but it already was known he wouldn’t be back the following year. Punch asked multiple questions about who would lead the No. 3 team (David Smith, Earnhardt’s longtime jack man, would get the job, and 1996 would be his only season as a Cup crew chief). An owner giving a midrace update on a crew chief search would be weird in 2017.

The race went back to green on Lap 51 with Earnhardt still in the lead. He lost it for the first time when Wallace passed him with 438 to go.


What’s Different – Part 2

In the 22 years since this race, NASCAR has developed a quicker trigger finger when it comes to throwing cautions. The following accident, just shy of Lap 80, would undoubtedly cause a caution in 2017. In 1995? Move along, nothing to see here.

We’re just getting started. This is Martinsville by the way. While the broadcast showed a slow motion replay of Kyle Petty losing a large piece of metal debris that also would cause a caution today, race leader Wallace was taken out by Ward Burton, whom he just lapped.

As a result, everyone pitted. On top are 1995 pit stop times. Below, Martinsville pit times from 2016.


The next significant caution occurred on Lap 232. Every once in a while, Martinsville will catch you off guard. Such as this instance when Ted Musgrave went for a ride ON the backstretch wall courtesy of Robert Pressley. The broadcast showed a replay just as Musgrave went sprinting down pit road to confront Pressley at his car.

Remember what I said earlier about NASCAR throwing cautions? With 102 laps left in the race, Mike Wallace caused a fog drift to form when he spun exiting Turn 4. Jenkins, Parsons and Jarrett sounded just as baffled as I that it didn’t warrant a caution. Not that it mattered. Within three laps, there would be a caution involving Elton Sawyer’s No. 27 Hooters car and the No. 8 of Jeff Burton right in front of the leaders. Rusty Wallace lost a bunch of spots while avoiding a collision with Sawyer.

With 38 laps left, Earnhardt assumed the lead for the fifth time. Given the outcome, the following moment sent a jolt through me. Lake Speed, driving the No. 9 Spam car, spun in Turn 4. As Speed came down the track to get going, Earnhardt’s car flashed into view, seemingly avoiding hitting the No. 9 just in time.

During the resulting caution, the battered No. 2 of Rusty Wallace stayed out while the rest of the leaders pitted. In 1995, double file restarts among lead lap cars still were 14 years away. Earnhardt restarted behind Wallace, while the lapped car of John Andretti was the first car on the inside.

There would be one more restart with 20 to go after an accident with Dale Jarrett and Derrike Cope (the latter is the only driver in this race still competing in the Cup series in 2017).

Eleven laps later, “The Intimidator” made his presence known. The No. 3 forced Wallace to make a mistake entering Turn 3.

Nine laps later, Earnhardt took the checkered flag with ease. It was his sixth and final win at Martinsville.

Though Earnhardt significantly narrowed the points margin over the next five weeks and won the season finale at Atlanta Motor Speedway, the championship belonged to Gordon. Earnhardt missed out on an eighth title by 34 points.

There were 16 lead changes, with the last coming with nine laps to go. That’s compared with the 18 lead changes last Sunday in Brad Keselowski’s Martinsville win. Keselowski took the lead for the final time with 43 laps left


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Whatever Happened to that Sponsor?

Heilig-Meyers – Sponsor of Mike Wallace’s No. 90 Ford: Heilig-Meyers was a furniture company founded in 1913 in Goldsboro, North Carolina, by Lithuanian immigrants, W. A. Heilig and J. M. Meyers.

The company was the primary sponsor of Cup series entries driven by Bobby Hillin, Jr., Wallace and Dick Trickle from 1993 – 1998.

In August 2000, after becoming one the largest furniture retailers in the United States, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. All of its stores were closed by the end of the year, except for its RoomStore branches, which would be liquidated in 2012.

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NASCAR America: Steve Letarte: Denny Hamlin showing ‘remarkable consistency’

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Things have been going relatively well for Denny Hamlin on the track in 2018.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver enters this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway sixth in points. Through five races, he’s finished outside the top six once (17th, Las Vegas).

NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan discussed his season so far in addition to Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske.

Letarte said Hamlin has displayed “remarkable consistency.”

“Denny Hamlin is in my mind a super star driver that I know I am guilty of leaving him out of super star conversations,” Letarte said.

Ryan pointed to mistakes on pit road that have prevented Hamlin from enjoying more success this season and in his career overall. His result at Las Vegas was the result of a speeding penalty.

“Five races this season, four pit mistakes,” Ryan said. “He overshot his box at Daytona, he did that at Fontana, he sped in the pits at Phoenix. While I think they’ve had speed, I think that team is still stumbling in the same ways it has in the past. Unless they correct that, I don’t know if they’re championship level yet.”

Hamlin heads to Martinsville where he has won a career-best five races.

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Trevor Bayne on Charlotte Roval: ‘You have to be on your game’

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Rain washed out the second day of Goodyear tire testing Wednesday on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. Goodyear has tentatively scheduled May 1 as a make-up test date.

Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Kyle Larson took part in the test Tuesday.

“I just took some slow pace laps and got a feel for the race track,” Bayne said in a statement from Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I was nervous, but I wasn’t anxious because I was never going to go out there and make qualifying laps. We worked our pace in and our plan, we stuck to it. I felt really good by the end of the day.

“You have to be on your game, that’s for sure. You can’t really let your guard down anywhere. There’s no room to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it pretty quickly. If you try to do something and it doesn’t work, you’ll pay the price. It’s going to be a survival race. … If you’re smart, you take care of your car and you don’t make mistakes, you’ll have a really good shot at the end for a good finish. I enjoyed it. It was a challenge for me – something new – and I enjoyed that part of it.”

Organizational tests at Charlotte will be in July. There will be two different sessions. Each team is allowed to test at one of the two sessions, which will be July 10 (rain date of July 11) and July 17 (rain date of July 18).

The Charlotte Roval hosts the final race of the first round of the Cup playoffs on Sept. 30 on NBC.

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NASCAR issues two fines for unsecured lug nuts at Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR announced two crew chief fines for unsecured lug nuts last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Adam Stevens, crew chief on Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, Eric Phillips, the crew chief for Ryan Preece‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

No other penalties were announced.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Drivers to watch, favorite sports upsets

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and begins to look forward to this weekend’s racing at Martinsville Speedway.

Marty Snider hosts with Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan from the “Big Oak Table” in Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show.

  • The same names have been dominating the headlines in the first five races in the 2018 season. We will take a look at some of the other drivers to be on the lookout for as the season rolls on.
  • One of NASCAR’s most historic tracks is up this weekend – Martinsville! We’ll check out some of the recent drama “The Paperclip” has provided ahead of the race.
  • In the spirit of March Madness, our panel will tell us about their most memorable sports moments, as well as some of NASCAR’s biggest upsets.
  • Plus, The Indianapolis 500 will have a new home in 2019. We’ll have all the details on NASCAR America.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.