- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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A New Jersey native, Martin Truex Jr. has voiced his support for the Philadelphia Eagles, but his fortunes of late have more resembled those of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Having broken through and finally made the playoffs for the first time since 1993, the Phillies hoped to make some noise. Instead, they quickly were swept aside by the Colorado Rockies.
Truex's pace has been much quicker, as he made NASCAR's Chase for the Nextel Cup in just his second full season. Unfortunately for the Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver, his first five races have included accidents and a blown engine, leaving him mired 11th in the standings with five races remaining.
A whopping 378 points behind Jeff Gordon heading into Sunday's Subway 500 at Martinsville Speedway, Truex won't be winning a championship this year. That said, he's not tossing the rest of the season by the wayside even though he knows the trio of Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer isn't coming back to him.
"Once you get behind, you really need to pray for a lot of things going your way for you to catch them. Obviously, they were the point leaders coming in for a reason," Truex said. "They've been strong, you know, for a long time.
"So for us, we just try to do the best job we could. We knew we could perform well enough to run with them. I think even until now, we've done that. It's just a matter of getting the finishes. For some reason we've had a lot of trouble just to, you know, have good races and not have stuff happen to us. We've just been in the wrong place at the wrong time a lot since the Chase started.
"We haven't had things go right for us, so that's frustrating. On the flip side, we can look back and look at how we ran and say we performed well enough to be right there with them. We just haven't been able to get it done. That is the most frustrating part for us."
Unless his fortunes at NASCAR's shortest track change drastically, it easily could be another frustrating weekend for the 27-year-old. In three previous Martinsville starts, he's yet to finish better than 19th and that was in his first start.
In April, Truex Jr. was 29th, so he knows the track can be vexing. Then again, he's handled what the Chase has thrown at him so far without flinching, so he's just trying to remain upbeat.
"We're real proud of the way we ran. We're proud of what we've been able to do throughout the season to get where we're at," Truex said. "But, yeah, it's kind of an empty spot there where we had them bad races and it just took us out of the Chase for the Championship.
We just haven't been able to get it done. That is the most frustrating part for us.
-- Martin Truex Jr.
"So it's tough not to think about what might have been or what could have been, but we're just going to go on and race as hard as we can, and do the best job we can. Just hope to have a great season and get ready for next year."
The changes are happening at a rapid pace at DEI, which is fully prepared for life without Dale Earnhardt Jr. Having acquired the assets of Ginn Racing in July, DEI already has moved the No. 01 and 15 teams into Ginn's former shop.
Once the season ends, Truex's No. 1 and what was Earnhardt's team will make the move. Much will be expected of Truex next season as his mentor moves on, but the driver still is focusing on this season and ignoring the temptation to focus on 2008 at this point.
And, for now, the focus is on Martinsville.
"We've got to finish what we've started this year. We've got to go out there and finish strong for our team and our sponsors," Truex said. "You know, I feel like we can win a few races before the year's out. We've got some great tracks for us coming up. And we just look forward to that. We need to figure out Martinsville better.
"So that's what's in store for this week. We haven't been too successful there, so we're looking forward to that challenge, and we've got some good tracks after that coming up. Actually, all the last four are real good for us. Hopefully, we can go out, win some races, move up in the points and be proud of what we've accomplished this year, and we'll turn to next year and start working hard throughout the winter.
"I've got a great team here and they're doing an awesome job for me. I'm definitely looking forward to next year, especially with all the things we've been able to do this year with our team. I feel like we're getting better still each week. So I think next year will be even better than this one, and we're looking forward to both of them."
And some day, maybe Truex will even look forward to Martinsville. After all, it worked for Earnhardt, who was anything but smooth in his first few appearances at the track.
"Martinsville is a place where I think I've improved as much or more than at any other track since I joined the Cup Series," Earnhardt said. "Our first few races here, it was like a circus. We were flying through the air and smashing into about everything. It's funny now, but at the time it was agonizing and frustrating.
"We hadn't run there in the Busch Series, so it was a huge learning curve. Then it was like turning on a light switch -- the crew gave me some great cars, we started qualifying really well and rang up five straight top-five finishes. Now, I'm surprised when we don't run in the top-five. It's a lot like when we go to Richmond or Talladega -- we walk in the track and we just expect to be up front."
If that happens, Truex might be able to capitalize if he's again in the Chase.
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.