By Jared Turner
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was raised around the famous grandfather clocks that Martinsville Speedway awards to winners at the fabled short track.
His father, the late seven-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, Dale Earnhardt, took home six of them.
So when Junior decided early on that he wanted to follow in his dad’s footsteps and drive race cars for a living, claiming his own Martinsville grandfather clock someday was naturally high on his bucket list.
After joining NASCAR’s top series full time in 2000 – a season that, coincidentally, would be his father’s last – Earnhardt Jr. struggled for awhile just to run competitively at the tricky .526-mile track that his father mastered so many times.
But somewhere around 2002, something clicked for the third-generation driver as he finally began to get the hang of the paperclip-shaped oval – although winning at Martinsville still proved cumbersome in the years that followed.
But in his 30th trip to Martinsville, and final trip with crew chief Steve Letarte, Earnhardt Jr. finally broke through last fall when he held off Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon – one of Martinsville’s all-time greatest drivers – for the win and a trip to Victory Lane.
More than anything else, though, the Kannapolis, North Carolina native just wanted to get his hands on a grandfather clock.
“I just know this place has a special meaning and a special place in the series and the sport,” said Earnhardt Jr., who won at Martinsville just a couple weeks after celebrating his 40th birthday.
“I’ve been coming here since the early ’80s, watching races here. Dad won several races here, brought home several clocks. I remember one in particular that set at the front door, in the hall by the stairs. Had this little round rug right in that hallway that I’d run my Matchbox cars on, listening to the race on the Racing Motor Network. That clock would ring on the hour.
“I always wanted one. I came close, I think, several times. We had some good finishes here (over the years). Even with (crew chiefs) Tony (Eury) Sr. and Tony (Eury) Jr. in the Bud days, we had pretty quick cars here. Several years I think the car should have won, but the driver didn’t.”
Crew chief Steve Letarte, who left Earnhardt Jr.’s team at the end of 2014 after four seasons atop the No. 88 pit box, was happy to help his driver and friend get the clock that he had so desperately wanted but never won.
“He talked about winning a clock a lot,” Letarte said. “Now, hopefully when I’m at his house having a cold one, we’ll listen to the chime 10 years from now and smile.”
Of course, getting a grandfather clock was one thing. Finding the appropriate place to put it was another. Since Earnhardt Jr. shares an abode with Amy Reimann, his girlfriend of more than three years, the veteran driver thought it only fair that Amy have a say in where the clock would permanently reside.
The couple ultimately agreed on a place that works for both of them – although Earnhardt Jr.’s first choice was right next to the front door, so that he could see it immediately every time he enters his home.
“It’s right next to the stairs when you go down in the basement right in the living room,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “You can see it from every angle.”
Now with a grandfather clock that chimes on the hour, Earnhardt Jr. is frequently reminded of his rich history with Martinsville – which long predates his days as a driver.
And this weekend he would certainly love to leave town with a second grandfather clock in his possession.
Perhaps with a little coaxing, this one could even sit at his front door.