MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Dale Earnhardt Jr. battled for the win during Sunday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series event at Martinsville Speedway. But the driver of the No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard Chevrolet encountered a handling issue in the closing laps that made it difficult to fend off eventual winner Kevin Harvick.
Earnhardt crossed the finish line second, and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates rounded out the top 11. Jeff Gordon scored fifth-place, Mark Martin took 10th, and Jimmie Johnson finished 11th. All four drivers improved in the championship standings.
“I’m just happy to be running well,” said Earnhardt, who led 17 of the final 30 laps and improves to eighth in the driver standings. “I’m happy to be in the mix. I’m thankful for the opportunity I’ve got, and thankful for all the help I’ve got with my team. I want to thank AMP Energy and National Guard and all our supporters. But the race team works hard, and when I don’t have the speed, they find the speed. It’s working real good together.”
Earnhardt called his No. 88 Chevrolet a top-10 car, but said that the pit strategy employed by crew chief Steve Letarte made the difference in their run Sunday. During the final caution period, Letarte had the crew put four fresh tires on the No. 88 Chevrolet. Earnhardt left pit road in fourth, trailing Johnson, who was running second. Johnson, driver of the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet, appeared poised for his seventh win at the short track after having led 65 laps already in the contest.
But as the pit stops unfolded, and Johnson raced for position, NASCAR reported he was entering pit road too fast. The penalty sent Johnson from running second to trailing the end of the longest line in the field. He rallied from the setback and crossed the finish line 11th in the closing laps. He now ranks third in the driver standings.
“We would had a shot at it (the win)," said Johnson, who clocked the fastest lap (94.0125 mph on Lap 187) to earn the Goodyear Gatorback Fastest Lap award. "You would hope you can race for it. I am disappointed about that (penalty). It just sucks to have that taken away from me at the end. But that is racing. Not the first guy to get dinged on pit road and thinking it wasn’t his fault. I know it won’t be the last so we will just go on.”
Gordon led three times for 37 laps in his No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet and picked up his 24th career top-five finish at the racetrack.
“I was real proud of Alan (Gustafson, crew chief) and all the guys on this team today,” Gordon said. “We weren’t great at the beginning. We just worked our way up there slowly, and then we had a race car that could run with these guys. It just seemed like the racetrack changed on us at the end, and that caution didn’t help us any, either. It was an awesome day for us to drive up to fifth at the end.”
Martin, driver of the No. 5 Quaker State/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, overcame a penalty early in the race for changing lanes too soon during the restart. Crew chief Lance McGrew used pit strategy to advance Martin through the field after the penalty was served. He returned to the lead lap after a red-flag period and continued his ascent. He crossed the finish line 10th in his 800th career Cup start.