As Denny Hamlin streaked beneath the checkered flag at the Martinsville Speedway one year ago, his mind immediately leaped not to the fact that he had snapped a long, frustrating losing streak or that he'd outrun a still-living Jeff Gordon to the finish line.
"The first thing I thought," the Virginia native admits with a laugh, "Was, dude, I'm getting a clock!"
For all the talk about money, points, and "we had a good run", real racers are actually more obsessed with the actual trophy than anything else. In 2007, when then-rookie Hamlin was in the process of remodeling his current home north of Charlotte on Lake Norman, one of his first considerations was visualizing a place to put his Martinsville Grandfather Clock…even though he hadn't won one yet.
"I've been racing at Martinsville since I was a teenager," he explained, referring back to his late model days racing out of his hometown of Richmond. "It doesn't matter what race you win there—you get a clock, and I came close a couple of time but didn't get one. Then we went there in '07 and I nearly won the Cup race. Finally, when we won there last spring I could hardly contain myself. I wanted to hug it when they wheeled it into Victory Lane."
"It" is a seven-foot tall handcrafted Grandfather Clock, manufactured by Martinsville-based Ridgeway Clocks and valued at around $10,000. And, with all due respect to the black and silver Harley J. Earl Trophy and the bizarre Tiffany-designed Sprint Cup (which, by the way, isn't even a cup) the Martinsville clock is the coolest, most sought-after trophy in stock car racing.
In 1964, legendary race promoter and Martinsville Speedway owner Clay Earles decided that he needed an award that would distinguish his two events from the other sixty races on the Grand National (now Cup Series) schedule.
"My grandfather wanted something that reflected this area and this town," explains Clay Campbell, current president of the Martinsville Speedway, the only track remaining from NASCAR's original 1949 calendar. "He didn't have to look far. This area was built on the furniture industry and Ridgeway was based right here and they made the clocks right here. It was perfect. Still is."
"We clinched the championship that day," The King recalls. "But I was disappointed when I realized they were giving Freddy that clock." Then Petty flashes that trademark smile. "It's alright though. We got us a couple of 'em around the house now."
More like sixteen.
Petty won fifteen races at The 'Ville and in 2007 was given a special edition Martinsville clock by race sponsor Goody's Headache Powders for thirty years of association with the company. Had he and wife Lynda actually kept all those clocks around their home in Randleman, NC, they would need a crate of Goody's every day when all those chimes started going off at noon and midnight.
Fortunately, they did not.
"They are all over the place," Lynda told me during a visit to the old raceshop in Level Cross in December 2006. "Each of our four children has one. I think there's a couple in the museum, at least one here at the shop, and we donated one to the parsonage at our church. My mom and dad had one, and so did his mom and dad. You know, Richard's daddy won two or three races there in the '50's. Imagine if they'd been giving out clocks then. And one weekend we won the Truck and Cup races there all in one weekend as team owners. We've got clocks stuck in corners all over the place."
Darrell Waltrip owns eleven Martinsville clocks. "We still have six of them here at the house (south of Nashville) and we gave five away. I kept promising people I'd give 'em one so I had to keep winning. If we'd had all eleven going off at one time they would run us out clear out of the state of Tennessee by now." Rusty Wallace and Jeff Gordon have seven each, followed by Dale Earnhardt and Cale Yarborough with five apiece.
Today's racers aren't greedy. And they don't care that Ridgeway Clocks are no longer actually built in Martinsville, but by its still-new parent company, the Howard Miller Corporation in Zeeland, Michigan.
They just want to be able to sit in their homes and hear those chimes every fifteen minutes, the ones that remind them of the day they conquered NASCAR's last great link to its very first season.
"My Martinsville clock is sitting right there in my foyer," says Kurt Busch, who earned his chimes on October 20, 2002. "I had no idea you won a grandfather clock. We pose for so many photos in Victory Lane I just thought we posed with the clock and that was it. The week after the race these guys started wheeling this thing in the house and I was like, 'What the heck is this?!'"
"But every time I hear that clock start chiming I think about those old school guys running at Martinsville sixty years ago when it was dirt. And I think about my grandfather, who passed away the week before I won my Martinsville race. His name was Al, so I named my grandfather clock after my actual grandfather."
So, is one enough? "Not a chance. Al needs a buddy."