The 2007 Chase for the Nextel Cup is finally upon us. With the “drama” that surrounded last week’s Chevy Rock & Roll 400 at Richmond a thing of the past, most fans have now begun to speculate how the 12 title contenders are shaping up to make their run at the title. There is, however, another budding story in the garage as the dust begins to settle. While Dale Earnhardt Jr. missed making the big show for the second time in three years, his teammate, two-time Busch Grand National champion Martin Truex Jr., has made it instead, getting over the hump in just his sophomore season behind the wheel of a Cup car.
Heading into the first race of the Chase at Loudon, N.H., Truex sits sixth in points; the seeding system NASCAR has instituted for 2007 has him and five others sitting just 50 points out of the championship lead. It’s a track the No. 1 team is happy to see; Truex led 46 laps en route to a third-place run at Loudon back on July 1st, just a month after his first career Nextel Cup victory at Dover. That dominating performance at the Monster Mile (216 out of 400 laps led) will bode well for him, as it happens to be the next race in the Chase after Loudon.
With two tracks already lined up on Truex’s good side, he also stands to benefit from the Car of Tomorrow in the playoffs, too. DEI has proven to have CoTs on par with both Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing… no small feat in itself. That’s critical, as there are a total of five CoT races in the Chase this year: Loudon, Dover, Martinsville, Phoenix and Talladega. The other tracks – Kansas, Lowe’s, Atlanta and Texas – are all horsepower-dependent, and the new DEI/RCR engine combination is certainly stout enough to compete there, as long as the motors keep from digesting themselves. Homestead-Miami Speedway is another big horsepower/downforce track, and Truex finished less than half a second behind Greg Biffle in last year’s finale. With the confidence from strong finishes already fresh in his head, there’s no doubt the cars and tracks coming up should clearly play into Truex’s favor.
DEI’s top “young gun” also has another asset left at his disposal: his newest teammate, Mark Martin. However, the newly acquired Ginn Racing No. 01 entry has been a shadow of its early-season self in recent weeks. Fielding three different drivers within the last month, the newest DEI team has had some teething issues with new hardware after switching from their previous Hendrick engine combinations. With that being said, Truex still has another car in which DEI can utilize as a test bed for engine and chassis combinations, in addition to drawing on over two decades of both Cup and title experience. No, Martin never did manage to win a Cup championship (cough, 1990, cough), but he has been in enough battles to know how to prepare, how to manage a race, and perhaps most importantly, what not to do. Factor in another setup guinea pig in teammate Paul Menard‘s No. 15, and the No. 1 car is starting to look a bit more formidable.
All this assistance could combine into an overwhelming success story yet to be told. Truex is suddenly the primary driver in what is now a four-car effort, the only one competing in racing’s version of the postseason. All of the attention, resources, and effort that had been spent trying to get the No. 8 car in the Chase can now be focused solely on the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet.
Speaking of which, this leaves another question to be answered: What about Junior?
What’s in it for him? He has but 10 races left at an organization where not too long ago, it would have seemed preposterous to imagine him driving anywhere else for the remainder of his racing career. How does he factor into the fate of DEI’s Quest for the Cup?
There probably aren’t many who would blame this guy if he mailed it in over the next 10 weeks. Frustration for Junior must be at an all-time high; leading up to the Chase, it seemed a little ironic how the one driver who needed to just avoid trouble to make the cut suffered three engine failures in the final seven races instead. There are also many who would cheer Junior’s laziness for different reasons; those who would like to see him stick it to the car owner whom they consider to be a number hoarder, and those who would like nothing more than a reason to get their digs in on Junior for quitting and giving up before he turns “traitor,” joining Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson at Hendrick Motorsports next year. Yes, as popular as Junior is with the fans, there are actually plenty more out there who long to see him fold in the face of adversity… especially in light of his latest career transition.
Well, I pity all of them who think that. Dale Jr. has risen above it all year, and all signs indicate he will simply continue to do so.
If anything this year, as well as the previous three, Dale Jr. has put to rest his party animal persona, becoming a driver that both acts like and presents himself as a champion. It’s been a long, tough road; the public spectacle that would become his 2007 season began back in January of this year, with tidal wave after tidal wave of controversy constantly thrown Dale Jr.’s way. Yet, through it all the man has remained resilient; even when opportunity arose to publicly defame the stepmother that let him loose, the man refused to do so. It’s a stance Earnhardt has kept consistent on; he would publicly chastise Kevin Harvick at Daytona for making derogatory comments regarding the way she conducts herself and her racing operations, and he most recently offered another rebuke to anyone who had negative words for her during the battle over the No. 8.
Clearly, it’s a scenario that has shown Junior to possess both dignity and class. Far from living a beer commercial fantasy, he has more than proven his roles as driver, cheerleader and a genuine teammate his guys can be proud to go to battle for. You have been able to hear it in his radio transmissions to the crew all year long, his statements to the media and the stifled frustration which he contained during post-race interviews following yet another mechanical failure at precisely the wrong time.
From his ability to handle family strife and public discord with dignity to the professionalism and aplomb which he has displayed following his decision to leave DEI, Earnhardt Jr. has proven that he will be anything but a “lame duck.” Hey may not be taking home a title this year, but that’s still his name on the roof of the car and on the door of the company. It is not only his father’s legacy he is competing to uphold, but his own as well. He has a race yet to win and a teammate to help win a championship.
Note that in both of Truex’s Busch Grand National championship celebrations, it was Earnhardt Jr. who was among the first to be seen congratulating him. They have been amiable teammates and are friends on and off the track. With that in mind, I truly believe that Junior will see it through and help his teammate anyway he can. Although improbable, Truex is the one person right now who stands a chance to bring home a Nextel Cup championship trophy to the company that his father created. Why wouldn’t both men work together to make that happen?
Admittedly, this scenario brings with it a cruel twist of irony; it’s clearly not what anyone envisioned. With both Juniors being preseason favorites to make the Chase – and even midseason favorites, by most accounts – it is sobering to see that it’s the rising youngster, not the flagship car, that will be carrying the banner for Dale Earnhardt Inc. into the final 10 races. Still, while crew chief Kevin Manion and Truex are still relatively new to the Nextel Cup Series, they have been down this path before. The pair won back-to-back Busch Grand National championships in 2004 and 2005, a run that catapulted them to the current position they are enjoying today. They’ve been in some high-pressure situations already… and in each one thrown their way, success has come both early and often.
That’s got the No. 1 team pumped and ready to tackle their newest challenge. Not happy just to be in the Chase, they may be considered darkhorses; but when push comes to shove, they’ll likely be legitimate contenders to the Championship this season.
Earnhardt Jr., Martin and the rest of the support system at DEI will make sure of that.