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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.