CHARLOTTE, N.C. - 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 starring 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.
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.'
Six months ago, Truex was a bit player at Dale Earnhardt Inc. despite consecutive Busch Series titles in 2004 and 2005. Earnhardt was the star, and nothing Truex did was good enough to take the shine off his teammate.
Even his January run-in with Daytona Beach, Fla., police failed to generate much buzz. Truex was charged with disorderly intoxication after he was caught urinating on his car in a parking garage, then allegedly tried to pay the $100 fine in cash when confronted by police.
The incident might have earned bold headlines for most drivers, but Truex flew way under the radar because the police report came out on the same day Earnhardt gave an update on his contract negotiations with stepmother, Teresa.
Asked that day if he disliked being stuck in Earnhardt's shadow, Truex explained that attention is earned through performance. If he could pick it up on the race track, the spotlight would find its way toward him.
That's exactly what's happened, said Max Siegel, president of DEI's global operations.
'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,' Siegel said. '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.
'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.
Siegel said the timing - particularly as it pertains to Truex - is coincidental.
'Martin's equipment has been good all year,' Siegel said. 'His team had good momentum at the end of last year, and the chemistry is gelling for that whole crew. And we've been focusing on performance for some time now.
'So it makes sense that things are clicking. If there's any relation at all, it's that there might be an added determination to validate what we've known all along: We are a good company.'
Although Truex is showing he can carry DEI into the future, team officials don't want to burden him with that. They learned through Earnhardt's parting that it's never healthy to have one superstar surrounded by a supporting cast.
'Not that Martin is even trying to step into Dale Jr.'s shoes, but he's almost been pushed into it and has accepted it an eager and mature way,' Siegel said. 'And can he be our marquee driver? Absolutely. But we want to be stronger as an entire company, we want to have four strong teams, not just one. And I don't think we want to put the pressure on him that he's responsible for the future of DEI.'
Either way, Truex's success has made it easier for Earnhardt to walk away from his late father's company.
'It takes a lot of pressure and worry off of me for what everybody's plans were with DEI and what everybody assumed would happen,' Earnhardt said. 'He's going to be able to provide that company the success it needs to garner the sponsorship dollars it needs to garner to bring in the corporate interest it needs to compete.'
SideBar: AT A GLANCE
' What: Pepsi 400
' When: Saturday, 6:30 p.m.
' Where: Daytona International Speedway
' TV: TNT