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An emotional moment Dale Earnhardt Jr. won’t forget

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has pondered what it will be like when he climbs into his No. 88 Cup car for the final time, how he’ll feel as he takes the green flag and what his emotions will be when the checkered flag waves not only on that race but his career in NASCAR’s highest series.

His sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, knows how she’ll react.

“I’m going to cry because at most events when there is anything historical or involves my family or something coming to an end or something changing, that’s just what I do,’’ she said.

Maybe Earnhardt will, but it might not be at the time he expects.

As Earnhardt looks ahead to what will be the 631st and final Cup start of his career in less than three months, he thinks about the last race with crew chief Steve Letarte, now an analyst for NBC Sports.

I never really thought about what that would be like until Steve ran his last race with me at Homestead,’’ Earnhardt said of the 2014 season finale. “He was as cool as a cucumber all weekend, at least in front of everybody, in front of me and the guys in the hauler and everything.’’

Letarte says he didn’t get emotional that weekend as he spoke to his team before the race or had pictures with his family on pit road. 

He was fine when he leaned into window to give Earnhardt his final instructions before cars pulled off pit road. Letarte started talking about the race, how he’d coach Earnhardt off the top lane and run the middle of the track.

“Then I wanted to let him know something, like, ‘Hey, it’s been great,’ ’’ Letarte said. “Disaster.’’

Earnhardt said: “(Letarte) just fell out and started crying and bawling like a baby. And I thought, man, and I started crying too, to be honest with you. It was a difficult moment.’’

Letarte said: “I think it would have been better if I had looked at (Earnhardt), and he would have been like a tough guy … but I look at him, and he’s crying. We’re a complete mess.

“There was that moment that I didn’t anticipate, didn’t expect and there was no way I could keep it together. That was without a doubt the toughest 30 seconds or so of the entire weekend. It’s tough thinking back to it.’’

Earnhardt knows for as much as he tries to steel himself that final weekend, surrounded by family, friends and teammates, it will be the unexpected moments that likely will hit him the most.

“I imagine that is going to be part of it for me, and it’s going to be hard to not have those emotions at that last race,’’ he said.

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Cup starting lineup at Martinsville Speedway

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Martin Truex Jr. will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Martinsville Speedway after qualifying was canceled by rain and snow Saturday.

“It’s definitely a big advantage to start out front,” Truex said. “First pit box obviously, everyone knows it’s a big deal here and that’s where you want to be so you get that clean stall in and out and not get torn up on pit road.”

The lineup was set by car owner points.

Kyle Busch will join Truex on the front row.

Row 2 will feature Team Penske’s Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski. Teammate Ryan Blaney starts fifth.

Click here for starting lineup

Martinsville Truck race postponed to Sunday after Cup race

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The Alpha Energy Solutions 250 Truck race at Martinsville has been postponed until Sunday afternoon, following the Cup race.

Ben Rhodes led the field to green 2:05 p.m. and held the lead until Mike Senica stalled on the track. Rhodes led the first 23 laps until precipitation red flagged the event at 2:17.

The Truck race will be televised on FS1.

Martin Truex Jr. sweeps Martinsville Cup practice

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After posting the fastest single lap and quickest 10-lap average in the first practice, Martin Truex. Jr. also topped the fastest lap chart in final practice for the STP 500 with a speed of 95.415 mph.

Also repeating his performance from the first practice, Brad Keselowski was second on the leaderboard. Keselowski was fast on long runs with the quickest 10-lap average of 94.579 mph.

Sophomore Daniel Suarez was notably fast. His lap of 95.588 mph was third on the chart.

Kyle Busch (95.122) and Ryan Newman (94.756) rounded out the top five.

Jimmie Johnson (93.831) was hoping to carry over momentum from last week’s top 1o at Auto Club, but struggled to find single lap speed. He landed 28th on the speed chart.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wheel hopped entering turn three with 33 minutes remaining. He rolled out a backup car and will start at the back regardless of where he qualifies.

Click here for the full final practice times.

History looms for the Wood Brothers

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Glen Wood first came to Martinsville, Virgina in November 1953, making the short 30-minute drive from Stuart for his NASCAR debut in a family owned car. Nearly 65 years later, the famed Woods Brothers are still racing the iconic No. 21 on the half-mile bullring.

The torch has since been passed to Glen’s sons, but the history remains.

“Our dad came here and raced,” Eddie Wood said in a press release before the STP 500. “He raced here in the fifties and it’s just a special, special place and knowing that the Ford Fusions ran really well last year here that gives you a lot of confidence. I’m sure it gives Paul (Menard) a lot of confidence, but it’s just a special, special place.”

Last fall, Ryan Blaney returned the 21 to the top 10 on the team’s home track for the first time in 12 years. He finished eighth in the First Data 400. This year, Blaney turned the car over to Menard and as the series comes to Martinsville for the first of two races this year, the legacy continues.

“The pressure is all what you make of it,” Menard said. “I know a couple things – I’ve got a great team behind me. We’re gonna have a fast Ford and we’re gonna have a lot of fans cheering on the 21 car, so you can think about that every waking second you’re up here, or you can go to work and do your business. It’s obviously an honor to drive this car and to be a part of the Wood family driving the 21 at Martinsville, and I’m really gonna think about that when I put my firesuit on, but once you get the helmet on it’s all business.”

The gravity of protecting the Wood Brothers’ legend at Martinsville is increased by the fact that this week marks NASCAR’s first short track race of the season and a return to its grassroots. It is easy to feel the history of racing on this little track nestled in rural Virginia—not only for the iconic team, but the entire field.

“It’s getting back to grassroots,” Menard said. “Over half the guys, probably more than that, started racing at short tracks with late models somewhere. We were running 25 laps back then versus 500 now, but the stage racing is kind of like a couple of heat races before the A Main, so you try to get your points when you can and be smart about things when you can and let it rip when you can.”

“You can race here year after year, race after race and there’s no way anybody can mess this race up,” Eddie Wood said. “This is just always a great race because it’s tight and it’s grassroots, it’s NASCAR roots.”

The STP 500 is not just another race for the Wood Brothers. On a track that puts a premium on mechanical grip and driver ability, as opposed to flat out horsepower, Menard has greater control over his fate. That is both good and bad news, because a milestone has been within reach for the past 27 races –  the team’s 100th win.

“It would be huge,” Menard said of the 100th win. “I’ll take it anywhere. We started at Daytona and didn’t get it there, and we’ll keep working until we get it. Martinsville would be a huge one for us, obviously, and if we do that, we’ll have another one for the museum down the road.”