It was a daunting task for Martin Truex Jr. to become the face of Dale Earnhardt Inc. after its namesake left the team last summer. Truex was introduced to that role in 2004, although it came under the circumstances of a horrific accident. He'll return to Loudon, N.H., and the track where he began the transition into DEI's star this weekend for the Lenox Industrial Tools 301.
A week before the Siemens 300 at Loudon in July 2004, Earnhardt suffered second-degree burns on his legs and neck after an accident in a warmup session in Sonoma, Calif. Earnhardt's car was engulfed in flames, and he was lucky to escape without career-ending injuries. He started the race in New Hampshire so he could be eligible for the championship points, but Truex replaced him after 60 laps, on the first caution.
It was a weird situation, Truex said.
"Getting into Junior's car that day, I did it more as a favor to him as a friend," said Truex. "I hated to see him in the situation he was in.
"I really wasn't in any way excited to get in the car, to be honest with you. I really just did it for him, for his team and for the whole company to make the best out of the situation."
As Truex replaced Earnhardt that day, he would replace him as the star driver of DEI when Earnhardt announced he was leaving to join Hendrick Motorsports on June 13 last year. Truex had a breakout year in 2007, with 14 top-10 finishes in 36 starts, including his first win, at Dover International Speedway.
He'll race the No. 1 Bass Pro Shops Chevrolet at Loudon. This is Truex's fifth year with the Sprint Cup Series, and Sunday will be his 20th race this season. He is 17th in the series standings.
When he had to replace Earnhardt in that '04 race, said Truex, he got a sense that DEI was looking at him as a potential poster boy of the team.
"That was my first time ever really sitting in a Cup car and I went out there and I think we qualified third with it," Truex said. "That was exciting for all of us. I think they were excited about it and looking forward to the possibilities of running me in a Cup car for the future."
His relationship with Earnhardt is still good, Truex said. The two talk frequently about racing and remain close friends.
But coming back to New Hampshire to race on the 1.058-mile track has special meaning for Truex, and not just because of the '04 race. He has had two top-five finishes in four Sprint Cup starts at Loudon. He also won the New England 200, a Nationwide Series event, in 2005 there.
New England is also home to his crew chief, Kevin Manion (known as "Bono"), who is from Boylston, and a few other members of the team. Manion and Truex met in 2003 at a test race in Richmond for the Busch Series and the two were paired before the 2004 season. At that '03 test race, Earnhardt drove two laps and then it was Truex's turn, but Truex said he was nervous.
Manion calmed him down.
"Get in there, you know what you're doing. Just go do what you do," Manion said, according to Truex.
Truex said Sunday's race is as special to him as his first win at Dover (which is near his hometown of Mayetta, N.J.), but that he has yet to race in New Hampshire without some kind of controversy. Part of that, he said, is because of the perception of DEI.
"DEI being Dale Earnhardt Inc., it's always been under a tough microscope," Truex said. "Whether it was before Dale Jr. or after Dale Jr., it's always been that way. I think a lot of the people are harsh in their opinions of DEI and what they are, the job they're able to do."
There are talks that Truex is considering leaving DEI, but he said yesterday he is working with DEI on a contract extension. DEI exercised a 2009 option on Truex, but he hasn't formally agreed to it. Still, Truex said, he is comfortable being the face of the team.
"Not a lot has changed as far as the way I go about doing my job, which has been good," he said.
"I just go out and do the same thing I've always done: I race hard."