Life without Dale Earnhardt Jr. at his late father’s NASCAR Sprint Cup team is going just fine, thank you.
Junior’s much-publicized departure from the team founded by the elder Earnhardt raised considerable speculation about the possible demise of Dale Earnhardt Inc. – or at least seeing the team become a second-class outfit in the highly competitive stock car series.
Heading into Sunday’s 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 team’s 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 NASCAR’s favorite drivers, is impressed by the way the youngsters on the team – none older than 28 – have responded, particularly Smith and Almirola, both 24.
Almirola backed up a career-high eighth-place finish at Bristol a week earlier by qualifying third last Sunday at Martinsville. 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 Menard’s 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.
“Those guys were really getting it done out there,” he said. “Paul (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 else’s wreck, and I think we’re seeing that team and driver start to come on.”
Martin noted the pressure was particularly heavy on Smith, whose team had fallen out of the top 35 and had to qualify at Martinsville.
“You can’t say enough about Regan Smith and the way that team performed,” Martin said. “You can’t 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, that’s pretty strong.
“It’s really just awesome to be able to watch as all of these young guys continue to learn and grow and show the promise that we know they have.”