The Frontstretch: The Future Of DEI -- And Why Mark Martin Is The Answer by Tommy Thompson -- Wednesday June 11, 2008

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The Future Of DEI -- And Why Mark Martin Is The Answer

Thompson In Turn 5 · Tommy Thompson · Wednesday June 11, 2008


Last season, two-time Sprint Cup Champion Tony Stewart predicted that Dale Earnhardt, Inc. would become “a museum” without their star driver, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.

As we approach one year after Junior’s official announcement he’d signed with Hendrick Motorsports, it’s a prophecy that looks like it may be coming to fruition.

A look at the driver standings would certainly, at least at first glance, confirm that DEI drivers Paul Menard, Regan Smith, and Martin Truex, Jr. are not among the elite of NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series. Far from it; of the three, only Truex, Jr. — currently 16th in points — is even within the Top 20 in the rankings. In fact, Menard at 27th and Smith at 31st are achieving genuine “also ran” status in their equipment as of late, with Smith’s team even rumored to shut down due to lack of financial support. As for Truex, Jr. — the organization’s lone Chase qualifier from 2007 — he has seen the No. 1 team’s performances languish to this point, remaining winless through 14 races this season to date. More than anything else, his struggles might be the best argument that DEI is on a downward spiral to non-competitiveness.

But there’s one piece to this puzzle that just doesn’t fit. How is it that semi-retired Cup star Mark Martin continues to turn in solid, Top 10 performances in DEI equipment assumed to be far off the pace?

There seems to be no easy answer to that. At Pocono last Sunday, Martin finished 10th in a strong race that saw him running among the Top 5 for all but a small part of the physically grueling event. Martin, who has competed in 11 of the first 14 Sprint Cup races this season, has outperformed his DEI teammates by leaps and bounds so far. And though Martin has spotted Truex, Jr. three races already, he still has scored five Top 10 finishes on his part-time schedule; that’s in comparison to four Top 10 performances for Truex and the No. 1.

With a few exceptions, Martin has been stout all year in the No. 8 U.S. Army Chevrolet. Not only has he scored a pair of Top 5 finishes, he very possibly had a victory secured earlier this year at Phoenix; that is, if new crew chief Tony Gibson had a little faith in the Batesville, Arkansas native’s ability to conserve fuel. Nonetheless, there are sound arguments that if Martin was in the ride full-time, DEI would have at least one of its four teams solidly within the Top 12 in driver points, well positioned for a run at the Chase for the Sprint Cup Championship this year.

Still not convinced that Martin’s in a league of his own? This assertion actually has some stats to back it up. Tony Stewart, with an average finishing position this season of 18th, currently sits 12th in championship points. Well, in Martin’s 11 Cup appearances this season, he is sporting a 14.5 average finish. Clearly, the man’s performing at a level that would have him sitting well ahead of Stewart’s final Chase-eligible position with ease. Indeed, if he were to switch to full-time status, it’s safe to say Martin would be looking at one more shot — this time in DEI equipment — at winning a coveted Cup championship. Yet, when Martin is not in the cockpit of the No. 8, it rarely performs anywhere near the level that it does for the five-time IROC Champion. Rookie Aric Almirola, who has spelled Martin in the three races the 49-year-old veteran has sat out, is only managing a 27.7 average finishing position — with just one Top 10 to show for his efforts to date.

While his DEI teammates have struggled at times this season, veteran Mark Martin continues to turn in solid finishes.

To compare the 23-year-old Almirola to Martin certainly is not fair; but what happens to DEI equipment when Mark Martin takes a vacation? Is he simply twice as good as the young “hot shoe” — or is there more than meets the eye?

It’s the latter theory which appears to hold major weight. With the possible exception of Truex, Jr. — who certainly does have his moments — it’s as if Martin is living on a different planet from the rest of his DEI teammates these days. But it’s a planet that has him in a very competitive race car week in and week out, one where DEI actually could be listed as a serious threat. With an average finishing position that would have him battling Greg Biffle (who also has a 14.5 finishing average) for seventh place in the driver point standings, Martin would clearly be labeled a title contender with three more starts under his belt.

It is inarguable that Mark Martin is among the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time, but talent will only take even the greats so far… even they need a good racecar. Don’t take my word for it: just ask Richard Petty, Bill Elliott or Darrell Waltrip to name a few. Those are all drivers also considered among the all-time greatest who saw their careers fizzle out as the competition became progressively tougher; already suffering the effects of middle age, their equipment — despite their career’s worth of talents behind the wheel — proved unable to keep up over the long run.

But Martin apparently is very secure in DEI’s ability to provide competitive equipment. In fact, he is so confident that he has recently been almost brash in his praise and assessment of his DEI team.

“I think we should be very good here [Pocono] Sunday. I think we should be decent at Michigan. I’m planning on winning the Brickyard,” said the normally reserved Martin last week. “We’ve got the stuff. We’ve got the team. I have never planned on anything, but that’s my plan for the Brickyard. That’s the crown jewel.”

What the answer is to DEI’s overall poor performance of their four-car Cup team might not be easily remedied, but Martin has shown that the potential is certainly there for the organization to prove Stewart’s caustic prediction of doom for DEI wrong. But still, to survive in the performance-driven NASCAR Sprint Cup series, Dale Earnhardt, Inc. must come up with all the right answers for the rest of their teams — and fast.

With that in mind, a good first question might be, “Mark, how are you and your guys doing it?” And when he answers … the rest of the team better listen intently.

And…That’s my view from Turn 5.

Contact Tommy Thompson

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06/11/2008 08:01 AM

i’ve followed martin since 1990…he’s done more with less than any other driver…bar none!there were some lean years at roush racing too! he has said time and time again that “in order to finish first, first you must finish.” no one appreciates their equipment more than mark martin.

06/11/2008 08:34 AM

You think maybe that Jr.s assertion for the last two years that DEI equipment was inferior might have been a ruse afterall.

I mean, if Mark Martin is competitive in the same equipment, is is the driver? Is Mark Martin that much better than Jr.?

Well the answers are.

Yes and Yes.

06/11/2008 08:55 AM

The one reason I can come up with is experience. His experience in all types of cars make him a perfect “go to” guy. PLus he doesnt race a lot he is fresh and not bogged down by the intense schedule. But Mark hasnt exactly burned up the track either. When you look at his solid runs, they are tracks that have been great for him over the years, so that is not altogether surprising. However, the face of DEI Martin Truex is struggling with the other full time team members, so that says to me that DEI is not up to par and Junior was right. Mark Martin is an asset to DEI but the company needs to turn things around for those who are in this for the long haul, not just the driver who is half-retired.

06/11/2008 10:20 AM

racinsince55: Actually I think the results from Mark and Jr. are quite comparable and speak volumes. Jr. was also the only DEI driver who consistently seemed to be able to stay in the mix and run near the front despite the equipment. (Note I said consistently…yes Truex found his stride late last year). Over the long haul, DNF’s and mechanical problems took it’s toll. DEI seems to have improved the reliability issues this season, which has helped and Martin’s part time schedule inherently reduces those odds (of him being the driver should one occur). I’m not shortchanging Mark in this, because I do think he is a big reason the 8 car hangs in there when he’s the driver…I just think there’s little merit to use it to take a shot at Jr.

06/11/2008 11:14 AM

Well, it certainly helps that he hasn’t had 6 blown motors and one that just gave up. And surprise, they now have up-to-date equipment, more room, and more personnel (esp engineers). Martin is signed for 2009…after that, what?

06/11/2008 02:21 PM

There seems to be a short term memory issue here. Did someone forget that DEI joined engine programs with RCR late last year and the DEI engines have not been popping like champagne corks which was the case last year. I am sure all will say JR is hard on engines, don’t recall any failures that he has caused this year but I am sure that will be an argument for the cork popping DEI engines of last year. So did Mark set the world on fire last year at DEI, I don’t think that was the case and he even popped a few DEI engines last year himself just for fun. Mark had great equipment at Roush during most of his racing career but in the end even Mark Martin can not put 2nd rate equipment in for top 5’s. It is funny that even though he has no wins JR has as many top 10’s and anyone this year, taken out twice by someome else and still only ~130 pts out of 1st and even when Hendrick Racing is not the powerhouse it was last year. At least give credit where credit is due, I don’t have any issues saying MM is a great driver nor do I have any issues saying DEI is 2nd rate equipment compared to the other major teams.

mad-dog 20/20
06/11/2008 03:15 PM

If no one has figured it out yet Mark Martin is a has been.

06/11/2008 04:17 PM

Mad-Dog 2020. You are so right.

06/11/2008 04:53 PM

It all seems to be a moot point since the 8 car is nothing more then a show car this year! At least Jr is in a position to run for the championship. Can Mark Martin say that, running part time?

Butch Camp
06/11/2008 06:22 PM

Still racing comes down to one thing only, championships are good but consistant wins are what racing is about. Jr. couldn’t win at DEI & it was Teresa’s fault according to the Jr. nation. Well he can’t win at high & mighty Hendrick either, so is it Teresa’s fault there too?You can run in the top 5 all season & probably win the championship, but running second means you’re the first looser

06/11/2008 06:40 PM

Again people suffer from short term memory issues, 2 Bush championships, 17 wins, at DEI that has been going downhill fast, if you look at winning percentage races attempted vs wins during that period you will find that only a few have a better win percentage. Guess with Hendrick he should have won all the races so far.

06/11/2008 06:43 PM

Aah, Jr haters. When he’s winning races, they say “yeah, but he’s never won a championship.” Now he’s up in the points, they complain he doesn’t have recent race wins. And they manage to turn every discussion into a debate about why he’s no good, even if the article was about Mark Martin.

Bottom line… No, DEI is not better off without Jr. Yes, MM is the best thing going for DEI right now. No, it is not a good thing when your team’s best driver is semi-retired.

Butch Camp
06/11/2008 07:38 PM

If you are refering to me,being a jr. hater not so.I’m actually a fan of his somewhat, it’s the rabid Jr. can’t do any wrong Jr. fans that make it hard to be a fan.I would really like for the kid to win,he seems to have incredible bad luck, everytime he put’s hisself in position to win something happens.But the guy just isn’t as good as the Jr.nation thinks or wants him to be.He’s a very good driver but still not as good as some of today’s drivers.Just my opinion.As far as him winning everything at Hendrick,not my words, that came from all the hoopla last year about him going to Hendrick

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