Commentary

With Junior out of the picture, focus at DEI turns to Truex

Martin Truex Jr. drove in Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s shadow in 2007. No longer. Now that Junior's out of the DEI picture, writes Mark Ashenfelter, all eyes are on Truex.

Updated: February 7, 2008, 7:17 PM ET
By Mark Ashenfelter | ESPN.com

MOORESVILLE, N.C. -- Even as he was winning his first Cup race and qualifying for the Chase, Martin Truex Jr. was stuck in the shadows at Dale Earnhardt Inc. And even as DEI rightly did everything it could to start building him up last year, it could only accomplish so much -- until now.

[+] EnlargeMartin Truex jr
AP Photo/Russ HamiltonMartin Truex Jr. made a statement by winning the Autism Speaks 400 at Dover in June.

Even if Truex had won the championship a year ago, there are many who still would have been talking about his teammate, the one who announced he was leaving the team back in May.

Yes, when you're Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s teammate and driving for the team founded by Dale Earnhardt Sr., there's only so much attention to be found.

This year, though, that may well change. Earnhardt, a close friend of Truex's, has joined Hendrick Motorsports, and with Mark Martin running just a partial schedule at DEI, Truex is clearly the team's focal point.

So much so that DEI executive John Story said the team will be disappointed if Truex isn't hoisting the Sprint Cup aloft at Homestead-Miami Speedway come November.

Lofty expectations to be sure, but that's just fine with Truex.

"It's definitely a different feeling, but it's definitely the most comfortable I've ever been in my own shoes since I became a professional race car driver," Truex said. "For a while you tippy-toe around, you don't feel comfortable; you feel like everybody's watching you. And you don't ever feel like you're doing a good enough job.

"I don't feel like that anymore. I feel very comfortable. I love the position I'm in. I love working for this company. I feel like we can win races and compete for championships for a long time, and that's a great feeling to have. I feel like everybody in this room ... they're all behind me; they're all doing the best job they can possibly do for me, and that's a great feeling. So I feel really comfortable, I'm really excited about this year, about the position I'm in.

"No. 1, No. 2 [in the DEI pecking order], whatever, I feel like these guys have my back. They're going to do everything they can in their power to help me be successful, and that's all I can ask for."

Crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion isn't interested in where the team ranks among DEI's four entries, but there's no argument that Truex and Co. are at the top of the heap and represent the only realistic chance DEI has at making the Chase for the Sprint Cup in 2008.

Mark Martin is again running a part-time schedule and sharing the car with Aric Almirola, who is just cutting his teeth at the Cup level. Paul Menard is coming off a rough rookie season, and Regan Smith will be running for Raybestos Rookie of the Year honors.

"I think we have four No. 1 teams here working as one," Manion said. "I think that's something that [DEI's executives] have been working with all the crew chiefs and all the teams [toward]. I think when Dale Jr. was here, he was No. 1, but he's moved on and the company is moving on toward bigger and better things.

I love working for this company. I feel like we can win races and compete for championships for a long time, and that's a great feeling to have.

-- Martin Truex Jr.

"It feels like we are one team with four cars, four drivers and four crew chiefs and a big, big support staff, and we're looking forward to it."

Truex's luck in the Chase saw him caught up in several wrecks in addition to losing an engine at Talladega, resulting in an 11th-place finish. For the season, he had his breakthrough win at Dover in June and ended with seven top-5 and 14 top-10 finishes.

So while it was a big step for Truex, it wasn't the type of season with which championships are made. Then again, last year was anything but sedate at Dale Earnhardt Inc.

Besides the drama surrounding Earnhardt's departure, there was the merger with Ginn Racing and the transformation into a four-car team. DEI has moved its Cup program into Ginn's former shop, giving the team more resources that could lead to stronger equipment.

Still, Truex knows there's room for improvement from his end, as well.

"I always push myself to be the best I can be, to be better every weekend and be better next week than I was last week," Truex said. "I just constantly work on my communication with Bono, try to really get a handle on the race cars and try to understand my race cars better. I think that's one of the most important things, especially with the COT, is [just] understanding the cars.

"Since everybody's got the same thing, it's up to you to find the little things that work for you, work for your race team, work for your race cars. So I think just concentrating and putting a lot of effort in, focusing on the things I need to do to be successful [is important]. And there's a lot more that goes into that, too, with being consistent, being smart on the racetrack, making the right decisions throughout the weekend. From the time we get on the racetrack and practice starts, you need to be 100 percent focused on that race car until the last lap of the race. Just pay attention and try to focus."

Manion thinks the team can improve its execution late in races and step up its qualifying efforts. But it's the end of the races that will be his focus this season.

"Where I struggled, where our team struggled was executing at the end of these races," Manion said. "We could have easily been sitting here with four poles and three wins and really getting a lot of [championship] talk."

Whether he's a contender remains to be seen. The safe bet, though, is that he'll be the center of attention at DEI. And the man who has vacated that role will be watching and expects his friend will do just fine.

"I think Truex will have the same kind of year he had last year and they'll build on that," Earnhardt said. "I expect him to run pretty good. He's a good driver; he's one of the best drivers in the series.

"I think he's got some of the most raw talent. I think he might be one of the most dedicated drivers, determined drivers. He's definitely in the top three there when it comes to being determined."

Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.

• Ashenfelter is an Event News Editor at ESPN.
• Worked at NASCAR Scene for eight years.
• Has covered NASCAR since 1999.