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.”
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 Schrader’s seventh-place qualifying effort and 37th-place finish at Martinsville after the team’s decision to switch from Dodges to Toyotas, BAM will take some time to regroup.
“Switching manufacturers was a taller order than we initially realized,” 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 “to focus on the remainder of the racing season.”
“While 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 Camry’s will enhance our program overall,” Morgenthau said. “This 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.”
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.
“For 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 we’re dead or not,” he said.
DRIVER-CAR EQUATION: With the Cup drivers putting NASCAR’s 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.
“Because (the CoTs are) not designed to handle as well, it obviously puts the driver more in the equation,” Stewart said. “But, what it’s put a high emphasis on now is engineering.
“You’re still not going to make it any faster than it’s able to go. Now, you have to rely on the engineers to find the combination that will make the car go fast, and then you just wrestle the car from that point. A driver won’t be able to make up the difference. We’re not going to be able to take a 10th-place car and run first with it.”
So, does that mean the car is not going to change much from the time it rolls off the team hauler at each track?
“I think you’ll find a range that works,” Stewart said. “Everybody is still trying to figure it out, especially on the mile-and-a-half and two-mile ovals, where that ‘sweet-spot’ is. And once you find it, you don’t stray very far from one side to the other.
“A computer program is going to tell you what you have to run now. The Roush guys talked about that last year, that when they get to the track they get a sheet that says, ‘This is what the simulation program tells us is the setup to run.’ And the setup is pretty much right on.”
STAT OF THE WEEK: Dale Earnhardt Jr. headed to Texas this week fourth in the season points, the highest he has been in the standings since he was fourth following the fall race at the Dallas track in 2006.
Earnhardt leads everyone with five top-five finishes in 2008 and he has improved his position in the standings in five of the six races thus far.
Junior, who hasn’t led the points since Sept. 19, 2004, has been the best of the Hendrick Motorsports stable so far this season. None of the Hendrick drivers has won a race yet and the other three team entries rank below Earnhardt: Four-time series champion Jeff Gordon is ninth, two-time reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson is 10th and Casey Mears is 27th.