Hot Tempers Steal Spotlight From Steady Points Leader Earnhardt
Perhaps it was a good time for NASCAR to have a pause in the schedule for Easter weekend because after all that happened in the previous race at Auto Club Speedway, the competitors needed a chance to cool off.
Everyone wanted a piece of Joey Logano after he was involved in a last-turn, last-lap crash that sent former Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin into the wall and ultimately to the hospital with a broken back. Hamlin is expected to miss six weeks of action, and his No. 11 FedEx Toyota will be driven by Mark Martin this weekend at Martinsville before Brian Vickers takes over the ride next week for the remainder of the Hamlin’s absence, beginning at Texas.
Logano also angered Indiana native Tony Stewart when he blocked Stewart during a late-race restart. Stewart confronted Logano on pit road afterward. Punches flew, with few connecting. Stewart later called Logano a “spoiled little rich kid.”
And, this just in – Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings.
In seasons past, that would be cause for celebration from NASCAR fans everywhere. But there is nothing like a good brawl to knock even the most popular driver in NASCAR off the radar.
“I feel like it gives us the opportunity to keep focusing on what we need to do,” Earnhardt said of the low-key response to his position atop the standings. “We're still not winning races, and I don't expect to get much attention until we can win races. I guess the way we've ran doesn't really reflect well on our finishes, meaning that I think we should run better. We've finished well, but I think that there are a lot of areas that we can improve, and we get to focus on that sort of being out of the scope and out of the spotlight. We can pay more attention to how do we get better as a team.
“If we go out and win some races, we'll get credit where credit is due. But we ran well, we've gotten lucky, we've had good cars, we've worked hard. But that's what everybody in the garage has done the same thing, and there are other guys in the series that aren't doing anything who are flashier than we are. I wouldn't expect the spotlight to be much brighter than it is. Hopefully we can win some races, though, and change that.”
The hot tempers at Fontana were fanned at the first short-track race of the season, March 17 at Bristol, when Hamlin knocked Logano out of the way and Logano charged him in the garage area afterward. Expect more full-contact racing this weekend at Martinsville because the flat, half-mile oval track is the shortest on the schedule, with the tightest turns of any oval. That requires blocking and the “bump and run” for a driver to succeed.
“I think that every driver is going to have a different opinion,” Earnhardt said. “My opinion is that I might block in certain situations. I would expect and accept to be blocked in certain situations. But you've got to give me racetrack. You've got to give me somewhere to run. You can't just run me up into the fence. You've got to give me a lane. You've got to give me if you give me a reasonable amount of racetrack to race on, then I really can't complain in regards to what you're trying to do to maintain the position.
“Also, it depends on what time in the race it is. Is it time to be blocking? Is the position that important at that moment in time? Again, everybody will have a different opinion.
“But when somebody blocks me, I'm not blown away by the notion. You know, some guys are more adamant about it than others. Some guys block stronger or block the whole racetrack and think that's OK. But everybody has got a different opinion. You've got to give me some racetrack where I can compete, give me a fair opportunity to race you cleanly and race you with respect, and you'll get the same from me.
“I'm not going to say that I've never blocked anybody because I have, and you do, you will. Being in certain situations, that's your only alternative. But you've got to give people racing room or expect to get turned around or expect to make a few people upset. And I'm not really picking sides either way. You know, I think in my opinion it was just hard racing. The guy is leading the race; he's trying to do what he can to win. I don't like to get run in the fence and I don't like to get run in the grass, and if you give me enough racetrack I can't really get too upset about a guy trying to maintain his position, especially near the end of the race.”
At Martinsville, Earnhardt Jr. has 10 top-five finishes and 14 top 10s. It’s a tough track for first-time drivers to figure out and Earnhardt admits he was guilty of that when he first arrived at the short track just over the North Carolina state line in southern Virginia.
“You would think that it fits right in your wheelhouse because of the style of track it is and the type of racing you do,” Earnhardt said. “I remember the first several races I ran there, I ran into everything. I ran into other race cars, walls, pace cars, just about everything that could be ran into, I found it. And you know, it was real frustrating because I had thought of myself as a short-track driver, and I thought that I had honed these skills on these short tracks in the Southeast, and this should be where I excel the most.
“Short-track racing can really allow you to get carried away with yourself, and you forget even now, even last year – we would run 100 laps, and I'd have the car torn all to hell down both sides and have to remind myself this is a longer event than you realize, and you've really got to preach patience to yourself and really rein in your emotions and your excitement because you just really want to get in there and gouge every corner, but there's just not enough race car to do that for 500 laps.
“It took me a few trips to really learn to be more patient, to let the race sort of come to me, that the track is going to come and go, the balance of the car is going to change, that you don't do all your work in the first 100 laps, and you've sort of got to wait out the competition and let your crew make good choices and good strategy that keeps you in the thick of things and then have an opportunity at the end.”
During Earnhardt’s rookie year at Martinsville, he hit everything – including the ambulance.
“Yeah, the ambulance wouldn't move, so I had to give him a bit of the bumper,” Earnhardt said. “It was so funny because I remember I was taking a helicopter ride with my dad (NASCAR legend the late Dale Earnhardt) and Michael Waltrip, and I ran over everything and finally Dad was like, ‘Man, tell that kid to park it.’ But somewhere in the race I had started on the inside a lap down and I took off and yarded the leader by a straightaway. I was so proud of myself, and that's the only thing I took away from the race, and I kept trying to talk about that on the way home, but all Dad wanted to talk about was how much I ran over and how I needed to really learn how to run better on the short tracks.
“It's a funny story thinking back on it now. But yeah, those first few trips were a real eye-opener. The racing there is nothing what you imagine, even coming up through those style of racetracks. It's just really tough and hard racing, and you've got to pick your battles. But it's a long race, and you can really just take yourself out of it early if you're not careful.”