No Junior achievement: A weekend to forget for DEI's Earnhardt, Truex

HAMPTON, Ga. -- Hang on, Junior.

Just three to go. Just three more races under the shell-shocked Dale Earnhardt Inc. banner and it's off to the Land of Oz and the shiny showroom floors at Hendrick Motorsports.

The move will be a welcome change for NASCAR's most popular driver. And it probably can't come soon enough.

Of course, Martin Truex Jr. isn't going anywhere. He'll take the DEI keys from Dale Earnhardt Jr. and try again in 2008.

The final laps of Sunday's Pep Boys Auto 500 at Atlanta Motor Speedway pretty much summarize DEI's beleaguered season. A year of blown engines, DNFs and plain bad luck came to a crescendo on the the super-fast mile-and-a-half south of Atlanta.

A race that saw both Earnhardt and Truex threatening to complete season-saving top-5s morphed into one of the most bizarre turnarounds of a Nextel Cup event.

The fact that Jimmie Johnson won and inched within nine points of teammate Jeff Gordon in the Chase standings wasn't a surprise.

The fact that neither Earnhardt nor Truex even finished the race was.

Junior could only shake his head after a freak accident ended his day with two laps to go.

"All I know is I have a headache and I'm going to my bus to rest up," Earnhardt said.

Truex had one of the most dominant cars all day. He led five times for a race-high 135 laps.

He was running 10th when havoc struck on the day's 13th restart with three laps remaining. He can thank Denny Hamlin's car for causing this bit of misfortune.

Hamlin was running first after he opted not to pit on the latest caution, but his ride sputtered on the restart.
Seconds later, Truex slammed into the rear of the No. 11 Chevrolet.

He finished 31st.

No one felt worse about the mishap than Hamlin, who ended up 24th.

"These guys had already started making their way underneath of me, and I was just waiting on a hit from behind," Hamlin said. "And I saw Martin [Truex Jr.] coming. It's tough for those guys. I'd fix their cars if I had to."

Truex's crew chief, Kevin Manion, said it was nobody's fault.

"I guess the No. 11 had some water in their gas, is what they are saying, and didn't get started, plus guys who took two tires, four tires and good hard racing at the end," he said. "Just a bad result, nowhere for us to go. Nobody's fault. Spotter said 'Checking up.' People were going left, right, and the next thing you know, bam, cars are stopping in front of us."

Junior's turn was next. Earnhardt was fourth on the ensuing green-white-checkered restart, only to lose a wheel and collect Jamie McMurray in a race-ending pileup in Turn 2.

Junior finished 25th, McMurray 26th.

"Man, that was a hit! It was hard and loud. Bam! Into the wall. I knew when I was sliding up there it was gonna be big, and it was," Earnhardt said. "We lost a a left rear wheel. We must have had an issue with the hubs or something because we had loose lugs and a loose rear wheel several times through the day.

"When that wasn't a problem, we were fast as hell."

But it was a problem. And the result was ugly: Two more DNFs for DEI.

That makes seven DNFs for Junior in 2007 and four for Truex, who trails Gordon by 513 points in the Chase standings. Chip in the three by teammate Paul Menard -- who finished 27th on Sunday -- and you have a Nextel Cup season to forget.

That's not even accounting for DEI newcomer Mark Martin, who lasted only 64 laps at Atlanta before an accident ended his day.

Junior won't have to wait long before he gets a taste of the future. He's scheduled to make his Hendrick Motorsports debut in a Car of Tomorrow test session Monday at AMS. He'll be reunited with former DEI crew chief Tony Eury Jr., who's now employed by HMS.

"Tomorrow's going to be a big day for those two guys," team owner Rick Hendrick told reporters after the race. "It's a real important day and it's a day we've been waiting for, so we're pretty excited bout it."

Joe Breeze is a motorsports editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Joe.M.Breeze@espn3.com.