DEI doing just fine without Junior
By Mike Harris
Life without Dale Earnhardt Jr. at his late fatherís NASCAR Sprint Cup team is going just fine, thank you.
Juniorís much-publicized departure from the team founded by the elder Earnhardt raised considerable speculation about the possible demise of Dale Earnhardt Inc. ó or at least seeing the team become a second-class outfit in the highly competitive stock car series.
Heading into Sundayís Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, all four DEI Cup entries are in the top 35 in the current car owner standings.
Martin Truex Jr., the teamís lead driver with the departure of Earnhardt Jr. to Hendrick Motorsports, is 13th, while the car shared by Mark Martin and rookie Aric Almirola is 22nd. Second-year driver Paul Menard is 24th and rookie Regan Smith is 35th.
Martin, long one of NASCARís favorite drivers, is impressed by the way the youngsters on the team ó none older than 28 ó have responded, particularly Smith and Almirola, both 24.
Almirola backed up a career-high eighth-place finish at Bristol by qualifying third a week later at Martinsville last Sunday. In just his eighth career Cup start, the rookie driver ran competitively until a punctured radiator late in the race ended his day early and relegated the No. 8 Chevrolet to 42nd place.
Smith, in only his 13th Cup start, finished a career-best 14th, just two spots in front of Menardís season-best 16th-place run. Truex, the most experienced of the quartet, was 21st, matching his worst finish of the first six races of 2008.
Martin, who watched the race on TV from his home in Daytona Beach, Fla., liked what he saw of his DEI teammates.
iThose guys were really getting it done out there,î he said. iPaul (Menard) drove a really smart race and just turned in a strong performance. If you look at it, that team has run really well the last two or three races and they seem to be getting better each time out. They had the fastest car on the track for a long time at Bristol before getting involved in someone elseís wreck, and I think weíre seeing that team and driver start to come on.î
Martin noted the pressure was particularly heavy on Smith, whose team had fallen out of the top 35 and had to qualify at Martinsville.
iYou canít say enough about Regan Smith and the way that team performed,î Martin said. iYou canít even describe the pressure those guys were under, and it says so much about Regan and everyone on that team to see them come out and run that way in that type of situation. Aric proved what he could do last week at Bristol and they came back and qualified the car on the second row, thatís pretty strong.
iItís really just awesome to be able to watch as all of these young guys continue to learn and grow and show the promise we know they have.î
SITTING OUT: BAM Racing co-owners Beth Ann and Tony Morgenthau have decided the team will skip the Sprint Cup races in Texas and Phoenix.
With Ken Schrader driving its No. 49 entry, BAM has qualified for only three of the first six 2008 races. And, despite Schraderís seventh-place qualifying effort and 37th-place finish at Martinsville after the teamís decision to switch from Dodges to Toyotas, BAM will take some time to regroup.
iSwitching manufacturers was a taller order than we initially realized,î Tony Morgenthau said in a statement this week.
He said the team has historically not run well at Texas or Phoenix and he and his wife have decided it is best to give up the 42nd-place spot in car owner points to take three weeks ito focus on the remainder of the racing season.î
iWhile skipping the next two races will hurt our points position in the short term, returning to the track at Talladega ready to move forward with fully tested Toyota Camryís will enhance our program overall,î Morgenthau said. iThis has been a very difficult, big picture decision. By taking a little time to regroup now, we should be a much stronger team for the rest of the year.î
And Morgenthau was adamant that the team, which began racing in Cup in 2002, is far from ready to close its doors, despite some dire forecasts.
iFor all the naysayers who may predict this to be the death knell for one of the few remaining independent teams in Sprint Cup … wait until Talladega, then tell us if weíre dead or not,î he said.
DRIVER-CAR EQUATION: With the Cup drivers putting NASCARís new generation Car of Tomorrow through its paces this week for the first time on the 1.5-mile oval at Texas, there are still lots of questions about how the cars will perform.
Two-time Cup champion Tony Stewart is convinced figuring out the CoT is now, more than ever, a cooperative effort between the drivers and the team engineers.
iBecause (the CoTs are) not designed to handle as well, it obviously puts the driver more in the equation,î Stewart said. iBut what itís put a high emphasis on now is engineering.î