Earnhardt Jr. using Truex in points game

Updated: July 23, 2004, 10:23 PM ET
Associated Press

Martin Truex Jr.
Truex Jr.
Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Earnhardt Jr.
LOUDON, N.H. -- His neck still tightly wrapped in a gauze bandage, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is ready to race again.

At least for a few laps.

In pain and needing more time for burns on his legs and face to heal after a frightening crash last week, Earnhardt sat out Friday's practice and qualifying at New Hampshire International Speedway, letting rookie Martin Truex Jr. take the wheel instead.

Earnhardt plans to get into his No. 8 Budweiser Chevrolet for practice Saturday and will start Sunday's Siemens 300 to earn the NASCAR Nextel Cup championship points before giving up the driver's seat to Truex.

"We just have to wait and see how this plays itself out," Earnhardt said during a news conference Friday, looking a bit uncomfortable with his dressings.

"Unfortunately, after the wreck last weekend, I won't be able to run the entire race," he said. "I'm really disappointed. I've never been in this situation before.

"It's painful to walk around, but what's most comfortable for me is sitting in the race car. This is just an opportunity to give Martin more time and a better opportunity to give us a better finish."

Truex, the Busch Series points leader, drives for Chance 2 Motorsports, co-owned by Earnhardt and stepmother Teresa Earnhardt. Truex tested recently on New Hampshire's 1.058-mile oval for what was supposed to be his Cup debut in the September race here.

Instead, he will make his first Cup appearance relieving Earnhardt, who sustained second-degree burns on the inside of his legs and on his neck and chin when he crashed last Sunday during a warmup for an American Le Mans Series sports car race in Sonoma, Calif.

"Obviously, this isn't the way we'd like to get our first Nextel Cup start," Truex said. "Junior is real focused to win the championship and we're here to help get him all the points we can get."

The son of the late Dale Earnhardt, killed in a crash during the 2001 Daytona 500, was enveloped in a ball of flame but managed to unhook his belts and scramble from the car before safety workers arrived.

"The wreck was fiery and hot," he said. "The pain was intense and I remember everything about the wreck.

"I really haven't been bothered too bad by the burns. My muscles have been aching and carrying on. I really didn't know what to expect under these conditions. It's something new every day with pain."

Earnhardt said he has no regrets about racing at Sonoma on a rare weekend off from the grueling 36-race Cup series.

"I love to drive, I love to race," said Earnhardt, who spent Sunday night in the hospital. "I take the risk every time I get in the car, no matter what car it is. If the opportunity presented itself tomorrow and if they parked that (Corvette) out the door right there, I'd get back in it."

Earnhardt said he could have qualified the car but decided to give Truex time with the team in order to get the best finish possible on Sunday.

And the Busch series driver did quite well, with the third-fastest qualifying speed. But a driver change negated the lap of 131.660 mph, and Earnhardt will have to go to the rear of the 43-car field Sunday.

Ryan Newman won the pole in a Dodge, going 132.360 mph. Second was the Chevy of points leader Jimmie Johnson at 131.984.

NASCAR rules require a team making a driver change after qualifying to start the race from the rear of the field. The driver who starts the race earns the points for that event.

The second-place driver in the Cup standings could have skipped this race without hurting his title aspirations very much under NASCAR's new system, with the top 10 in points competing for the title over the final 10 races of the season.

"It'd be good to not have to do anything this weekend and just heal up and not worry about it but that ain't fair to the guys who are well capable to run 500 miles," Earnhardt said.

He will wear more layers of fire-retardant clothing this week. He wore a fire-retardant shirt under his uniform (also fire retardant), but he left his legs exposed.

"I put that on my upper body but I just wore my boxers, so my legs got burned," he said. "So it shows me I need to be wearing everything I can wear and utilize as much precaution as possible."

Earnhardt said he stopped taking painkillers early in the week.

"It's the price you pay," he said. "It's difficult to get a little sleep at night, but it's worth it."

Earnhardt said he hopes to be ready to race the entire 500 miles next week at Pocono.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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