Truex ready to take lead role for DEI

He’s won once and finished third or better four other times.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — The perception was DEI would fall apart without Dale Earnhardt Jr. The reality is Martin Truex Jr. appears ready, willing and able to step into a leading role with the team.

Truex finished third in New Hampshire to continue a strong string of runs that began shortly after Earnhardt’s May 10 announcement that he will leave DEI at the end of this season. In the seven races since, Truex scored his first career Nextel Cup victory, notched four finishes of third or better, and has only been lower than 16th once.

Finished third Sunday

Truex has been on such a roll, he had to couch his disappointment Sunday after failing to win at New Hampshire. He led 46 laps, was beat out of the pits by eventual winner Denny Hamlin on the final stop, and gave up second-place to Jeff Gordon in the closing laps.

“Hey, we’ll take third,” Truex said after. “Six months ago, I would’ve begged you for a third-place finish.”

So true.

Six months ago, Truex was a bit player at Dale Earnhardt Inc. despite consecutive Busch Series titles in 2004 and 2005. Earnhardt was the man, and nothing Truex did was good enough to take the spotlight off his teammate.

“I think that probably the most difficult thing for all of us is trying to battle public perception ... and if you look at the focus of what people talked about at DEI, it was always Dale Jr. vs. Teresa,” said Max Siegel, president of DEI’s global operations. “When you perform on the track, it pushes away all the personal issues.”

Truex stayed out of Earnhardt’s contract squabble, and learned at the same time as everyone else that Junior was leaving when he watched the announcement on live TV.

As DEI’s demise was instantly predicted, Truex buckled down and reconfirmed his commitment to the organization. His contract runs through 2008, and sponsor Bass Pro Shops last week extended its deal with DEI.

Not that big a deal

“People think I’m crazy when I say this, but I really don’t think it’s a big deal,” Truex said a day after Earnhardt’s announcement. “Just ’cause Junior isn’t driving for us, I don’t see it making that big of an impact. Maybe long-term, but not in the next couple years.

“I’ve got to give it a fair shake. They gave me my opportunity, and I’ve decided I’m going to finish out the year and honor my contract because of all the things they’ve done for me.”

There’s been speculation that this sudden surge is related to Earnhardt’s decision. After all, Junior said the inability to win a championship at DEI was one of the reasons he’s leaving.

But in the seven weeks since, Truex has emerged as a legitimate title contender and is ranked 10th in the race to make the Chase for the championship. He’s 48 points ahead of Earnhardt, who is holding down the 12th and final Chase spot and giving DEI hope that it might have two drivers racing for the Nextel Cup title this season.

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