Dale Earnhardt Jr. knows what it’s like to finish in the top five at Martinsville Speedway. He just doesn’t know what it’s like to win a Sprint Cup race there.
With eight top-five finishes in 22 career starts on the smallest track on the Cup circuit, Earnhardt Jr. will look for his first career win there and try to snap a 98-race overall winless streak this weekend in the Goody’s Pain Relief 500.
Then again, he also could just use a top-five finish. That would help him in the points standings, where he is 12th but just one point behind a group of three drivers tied for 12th.
“I like Martinsville a lot,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “There’s something about trying to get around the corner of that place that’s a lot of fun, and it’s just an interesting race track. … Martinsville is a good short track, and there is a little bit of roughness to it.”
One of Earnhardt Jr.’s best Martinsville races came in October when he led 90 laps and finished seventh in the Chase race at the half-mile track.
The key for Earnhardt Jr. will be qualifying. With the exception of winning the pole at Daytona, he is averaging a starting spot of 30th this season.
Qualifying for the race will be Saturday and there will be no practice after qualifying for teams to make adjustments. Earnhardt Jr. said he needs to qualify well for all races to avoid poor track position to start.
His crew chief, Steve Letarte, said qualifying is important just so a driver knows the car has speed at Martinsville.
“You qualify well and [then] you don’t panic when you aren’t in the front,” Letarte said. “There’s a lot of pit strategy that goes into Martinsville – you can take two tires, four tires or stay out. There are a lot of options there. The driver has to have a lot of trust in his crew chief and what he is telling him.
“It’s a hard track. It’s bumper to bumper all the way around. It’s hard for a driver to realize if he is on pace or where the leaders are. It is very important for Dale to trust me and what I’m asking of him. If he has confidence to do that then hopefully we can have something at the end.”
Earnhardt Jr. will not have his first-string rear-tire changer for the race. Joe Slingerland suffered a pulled right hamstring in the first pit stop last week at California and was replaced by Cam Waugh. Waugh, a backup for the Jimmie Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. teams at Hendrick, will be the rear-tire changer at Martinsville.