Winning Is Still Why They Race

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. holds off his teammate, Jeff Gordon, at Martinsville Speedway. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. holds off his teammate, Jeff Gordon, at Martinsville Speedway. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Clinton, South Carolina, Monday, October 27, 2014, 12:15 p.m.

Nothing is wrong with NASCAR that Martinsville Speedway can’t fix. Add in a Dale Earnhardt Jr. victory, and it makes a fan want to go buy a keg of beer and figure out how to make homemade beef jerky.

Well, that’s what Junior said afterwards, or something like that.

One of the wiser remarks a football coach ever said to me was, “It’s the hardest thing in the world to be friends with those you compete against.” This Chase format has made it hard to keep up with just exactly who has a grudge against whom. You think there’s tension on the track? Check out the motorcoach lot. It’s becoming an old neighborhood, full of so many chips on so many shoulders that the principals have forgotten how the chips got there. Come Texas next week, it’s going to be forty-three coaches and forty-three private cookouts.

No fraternizing with the enemy. Who’s the enemy? Everybody.

As Earnhardt’s crew chief, Steve Letarte, said, “It was a great day, a hard-fought day. Beating and banging all through the field. I think we saw more catastrophic-style crashes. You see a lot of sliding around out there, but (Sunday) we saw more serious crashes than we’ve ever seen. That is what the sport has created. It’s stressful. It’s high pressure. It’s what we want. It was exciting to come out on top.”

Fourth victory of the season, but Earnhardt Jr.'s first at NASCAR's shortest track. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Fourth victory of the season, but Earnhardt Jr.’s first at NASCAR’s shortest track. (Garry Eller/HHP photo for Chevy Racing)

Jeff Gordon needed it more, if only because he still has a shot at the championship, but Earnhardt wanted it more. He’d never won at Martinsville before. Isn’t it encouraging when “want” wins over “need”? Isn’t that what everyone wants to see? Damn the Chase. Full steam ahead.

“We prepare for this race like most people prepare for the Brickyard,” Letarte said. “There’s a reason all our cars run well here. … It’s not just by chance.”

One reason, of course, is that it’s near the site of the plane crash, the one that took ten lives, ten years ago, among them Rick Hendrick’s brother and son.

For Earnhardt’s title hopes, it was a week too late, and, as he said, “I don’t believe in fairy tales. It’s only destiny in hindsight, you know. This wasn’t our year. It’s only magical after the fact, when you see it happen.

“It feels good not to sit there and watch everybody else just finish the year off. I’m glad we were able to get a win, remind ourselves that, if we keep working hard, keep trying, maybe (one day) we’ll win this championship like we want to. We’re definitely a good enough team. We got to get them breaks, got to keep working, got to stay positive. You can’t get beat down.”

Teamwork, thank goodness, only goes so far. (John Clark photo)

Teamwork, thank goodness, only goes so far. (John Clark photo)

If Earnhardt had moved over and let Gordon win, it would have been great for the team and terrible for the sport. It’s good that expediency didn’t rule the day.

When Earnhardt declared, “Winning races is the priority. I don’t know that I’d be that damned happy about winning a championship had we not won any races,” it made me smile in my living room. Yeah. Attaboy.

He’s won four races. He’s not going to win the championship. This format is part maze and part lottery. Whoever wins it is going to have to be skillful and lucky. Justice has been sacrificed on the altar of excitement. The flip side, naturally, is that it is exciting.

Jeff Gordon is sitting as pretty as a man can with an edge that is fleeting and prospects that are not guaranteed. That checkered flag could have put him in a parade down Easy Street for the next two weeks.

“I would have liked to have had that win,” he said, “but you don’t want to do that because somebody moves over for you.”

Three races remain. The next one will have even more Machiavellian potential than this one. The prince’s spirit is going to be tiptoeing around Hendrick Motorsports all week, muttering something about how there’s a bunch of damned dreamers calling the shots at the joint.

If Gordon could have caught Earnhardt, he said, “I would have moved him, for sure. There’s no doubt in my mind. Everybody who is out there racing has to weigh risk versus reward. For me, to win this race [was] worth taking a lot of risk, even if you upset your teammate.”

He couldn’t catch him. Earnhardt, in spite of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men, didn’t slow down. Gordon might win the championship. It is no longer within Earnhardt’s grasp.

Gordon had everything to gain, and Earnhardt had nothing to lose.

Isn’t that just the way we want our races to be?

Thanks for still caring about what I have to write about NASCAR, and check out my other blog,, which is mainly fiction. If you’d like to peruse the books I’ve written over the years, most notably the two novels, click here:

About Monte

For 20 seasons, I mostly wrote about NASCAR. I'm still paying attention, but I'm spending more of my time these days writing novels and songs. I try to blog regularly on whatever happens to strike my fancy.
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One Response to Winning Is Still Why They Race

  1. Carol Dahlberg says:

    I don’t think I have ever enjoyed watching a victory celebration more than sering Dale and his team doing their happy dance. Jeff has two more chances to win his way into the final four.

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