CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The checkered flag was flying again
outside Dale Earnhardt Inc. on Tuesday, the first time in more than
a year the organization held its traditional victory celebration.
Less than a month ago, few thought that flag would fly anytime soon.
Then Martin Truex Jr. earned his first career victory Monday,
and there's no hurry to shove the flag back inside its box.
"It's been awhile since that's been up, so it's a welcome
sight," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "And it makes everyone want to
see it raised a few more times this year."
After Earnhardt announced May 10 that he would leave his late
father's company at season's end, many predicted DEI's days as a
competitive team were numbered. Instead, the team is thriving on
the track for the first time in quite awhile.
Junior is running up front again and challenged for the win two
weeks ago at Charlotte. He also had back-to-back season-best
qualifying efforts and narrowly missed winning his first pole in five years.
And Truex is turning into quite the contender. He raced his way
into the annual All-Star event by winning a make-or-break sprint
right before the $1 million show. He followed it with his points
victory in Monday's rain-delayed race at Dover International Speedway.
Suddenly, DEI doesn't seem to be in such bad shape, after all.
"I still don't understand where everyone was coming from when
they thought that DEI was going to go away just because Dale Junior
went away," Truex said. "It started before he started driving.
He's a great asset. He's been a great teammate for me. He's been a
great mentor for me.
"But we can go on. We can win races."
That's not an opinion Junior shares. He has said he can't win a
championship at DEI and is searching for a bigger and better team
to help him do that.
That pursuit has taken him inside some of the sport's top shops
-- a NASCAR-style recruiting visit. Once Junior got a look around,
he discovered DEI isn't so inferior.
"I have never had the opportunity to see any shops outside DEI
in my driving career; that was a big surprise for me," he said.
"I was surprised at how on par in some places DEI really is."
If that's true, than perhaps Earnhardt's real reason for leaving
is personal -- stepmother, Teresa.
That's the best news for DEI, because it means the company can
find success when Junior has moved on. And so changes are being
made to ensure the racing improves.
DEI merged forces with Richard Childress Racing on an engine
partnership that shows commitment to competition. And team
officials, who hope sponsor Budweiser will stay, are actively pursuing Earnhardt's replacement.
"The main thing we are doing is solidifying and crystallizing
the entire organization," said Max Siegel, president of DEI's
global operations. "We've made minor shifts, set goals and are
opening up communication. It's all about tweaking things and making
long-term capital improvements."
It all came after Junior's decision, a defection that ultimately
might have been the wake-up call Teresa Earnhardt needed to realize
it was time to put DEI back among NASCAR's heavyweights.
Before this year, DEI lacked the expensive new resources that
have become standard in the top shops. Junior didn't skimp on those
areas when he built JR Motorsports, and DEI officials often found themselves borrowing his stuff.
Now, Siegel said, DEI has access to luxuries, and the team is planning to buy a seven-post shaker, the new must-have technology. Hendrick Motorsports has used the machine, which simulates a car's reactions over a 500-mile race, en route to nine wins this season. Now, every car owner wants one.
The elder Earnhardt kept DEI on the cutting edge of the sport
and had the team contending at the time of his 2001 death. Although
Teresa Earnhardt temporarily kept things rolling, DEI has slowly fallen behind.
Now, it's too late to play catch up with Junior, despite quiet
rumblings that he could end up right back in the No. 8. That's not
likely after recent statements that his decision to leave was in large part personal.
Since making the break, Junior seems happier than he's been in
quite some time. Still, he doesn't want DEI to fail; his name, after all, is on the masthead.
If it took him leaving to make the team successful, so be it.