Martinís success uplifting to DEI
By Mike Cranston
CONCORD ó Dale Earnhardt Jr. posted consecutive top-five finishes once last season. Mark Martin matched that feat when he finished fifth and third in the past two races ó as a part-time, 49-year-old driver.
So much for the demise of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
iI think that goes a long way in quieting any naysayers that there might have been,î Martin said. iIím very proud to be a part of the program.î
Martin was relaxed Tuesday. He briefly sat in a U.S. Army helicopter parked in the infield of Loweís Motor Speedway during a news conference promoting NASCARís tribute to American troops during the Coca-Cola 600.
Then, before climbing in his car for a testing session, he talked about his success replacing Earnhardt in the No. 8 Chevrolet despite driving in only seven of 10 races.
iI donít think anybody else has got a deal like mine,î Martin said of being able to work with a full-time crew. iTheyíre kind of hard to put together. Whether we win or not, weíve managed to do it and get really close several times. I donít think the trophy makes the difference. I think weíve proved that it can be done, and Iím proud of that.î
DEIís future was shaky last summer when Earnhardt announced he was leaving the race team named after his late father and joining powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports. Crew chief Tony Eury Jr. went with him to Hendrick, and Budweiser left DEI to become Kasey Kahneís primary sponsor.
DEI then merged with Ginn Racing, which Martin raced a partial schedule for last season as part of a his semiretirement. DEI worked out a deal in which Martin agreed to drive in 24 races, with 24-year-old Aric Almirola driving the other 12. Martinís sponsor, the U.S. Army, moved to his new ride.
iWhen Dale Jr. left we were, ëWhere are we going? What are we doing?í î said Tony Gibson, DEIís car chief and interim crew chief for the No. 8 last year. iMark stepped in and said, ëThis is the direction the company needs to go in.í It helped guide us down that path and get us going.î
With Gibson as crew chief and most of Earnhardtís old crew members staying on board, Martin finished 10th at Las Vegas in his third race. After finishing 22nd at Atlanta, Martin has reeled off three straight top-10s at Texas (eighth), Phoenix (fifth) and Saturdayís third-place effort at Richmond.
iWeíve had two shots at winning races,î Gibson said. iOne of them we couldnít make it on fuel, and the other night we kind of got mixed up with some lapped cars. To start like we started this year, moving shops, new drivers, new cars, I think weíve done a great job. The whole company has done a good job at making that transition.î
Martin and Almirola ó who has finished eighth, 42nd and 33rd ó have combined to put the No. 8 car in 14th place in the owners standings. But because the lineup for the season-ending Chase for the Championship is based on driver points, there will be no championship run for the No. 8.
iItís been fun,î Gibson said. iItís a little stressful with two different drivers, a veteran and a rookie. But both of them have done really well.î
Martinís success has brought memories of David Pearson, the three-time Cup champion who won races throughout the 1970s despite not running a full schedule. Martin had five top-five finishes in just 24 races last year.
iFirst of all, Iím no David Pearson. That makes it tougher,î said Martin, who has 35 Cup wins. iIím sure it is tougher today with the competition like it is. Things were different back then. There were good teams that didnít run the whole schedule. We donít have that today. Itís hard to put together a schedule with a part-time (driver) that can compete.î
But DEI is doing that, and confidence was soaring around the team during Tuesdayís test session. Martin will drive Saturday night at Darlington Raceway, where he has 25 top-10 finishes in 41 career starts.
iI love Darlington, and I love driving Tony Gibsonís car,î Martin said. iThe 8 car the last two races has been a contender and hopefully we can pull one off at Darlington.î