Though Little E is departing, DEI has revved things up and another Junior—Martin Truex—has come into his own
THE CLOCK had just struck 11 on the morning of May 10, and Martin Truex Jr., still in bed at his house in Mooresville, N.C., rolled over and flipped on the television. He watched as Dale Earnhardt Jr.—his friend and teammate at Dale Earnhardt Inc. (DEI)—announced in a nationally televised press conference that he was leaving DEI at the end of the season. Truex, like almost everyone else in NASCAR, had no prior knowledge of Junior's plans. So how did Truex respond to his buddy's bombshell? After rubbing his eyes to make sure that he wasn't dreaming, he felt a rush of excitement. Now, for the first time in his Nextel Cup career, Truex was going to be the No. 1 driver for a Nextel Cup team.
And the 26-year-old Truex has already taken the bit and is making a run for a berth in the Chase for the Cup. Added incentive came from the numerous reports in the media that Earnhardt's departure would lead to the demise of the DEI team. "I took it as an insult every time I read that we were going to suck now that Junior was leaving," says Truex, who is signed with DEI through 2008.
He won his first Cup race in 58 career starts at Dover on June 4 and was runner-up to Carl Edwards at Michigan on Sunday. Since learning of Earnhardt's departure, Truex has climbed from 20th to 10th in the points standings, two places ahead of Junior. More impressive, Truex, in the number 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevy, is consistently running nose-to-nose with the Chevys of Hendrick Motorsports, the team that has won 10 of the 15 races this season and next season will welcome Earnhardt into its stable.
"Martin is getting better with every race," says Dodge driver Elliott Sadler. "You can't put a number on how much momentum and confidence mean in Nextel Cup racing. He's got that now."
In fact, DEI has that now. One of Earnhardt's biggest complaints over the past two seasons has been the lack of horsepower from DEI engines. This was addressed a week after Junior's announcement, when DEI formed a partnership with Richard Childress Racing to build and develop engines. Overnight the number of engineers dedicated to increasing horsepower for DEI jumped from 70 to 160, and now Earnhardt and Truex have as much straight-line speed as the Hendrick racers.
Truex is also benefiting from DEI's new test team, which went to work three weeks ago. Headed by Tony Eury Sr., who had served as Earnhardt's crew chief for four seasons, the group of about 15 engineers, technicians, drivers and mechanics tests the DEI Chevys during the week at various racetracks, collecting data on aerodynamics and various setups that can be put into use on weekends. "Reading about how bad we were was tough," says Richie Gilmore, the director of motor sports at DEI. "But it's been a great motivating tool."
On Sunday, in the Citizens Bank 400 at Michigan International Speedway, Truex finished in the top three for the third straight week. As he talked to reporters on pit road afterward, Truex got the thumbs-up sign from Earnhardt, who was strolling by after finishing fifth. It was a small gesture, but it had big meaning. Truex is ready to become DEI's main man.
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On Sunday, for the second straight week, 22-year-old British driver Lewis Hamilton (SI, June 18) made history on the Formula One circuit. Though he had never before raced on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway's road course, Hamilton (right) won the U.S. Grand Prix in dominating fashion, starting from the pole and leading 66 of the 73 laps to finish 1.5 seconds ahead of his McLaren teammate (and reigning world champion) Fernando Alonso. The week before, Hamilton had won the Canadian Grand Prix, becoming the first black driver to win an F/1 race. With his victory at Indy, Hamilton established several more firsts: He became the first black driver in any series to take a checkered flag at the Brickyard; he's the first F/1 driver to finish in the top three in each of his first seven career starts; and he's the first rookie to hold a 10-point lead in the standings in the 57-year history of F/1. Hamilton's quick start already has the European press comparing him with Michael Schumacher, the seven-time F/1 champ. What's more certain is this: With 10 races left in the season, the Formula One title is clearly Hamilton's to lose.