If pressure was massing under Martin Truex Jr.'s tightly pulled-down ball cap, his expression, vacant but for the suggestion of a smile, masked it completely. His eyes were shielded by buggy black lenses. Was he stoic or oblivious?
After all, just a few weeks had passed since teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., his impetus for coming so fast from the relative obscurity of weekly series racing in New Jersey to NASCAR's Nextel Cup series, had announced he was leaving Dale Earnhardt Inc. after the season.
At 27, Truex would, by default, be the standard-bearer for a team expected to wither without its icon and most successful driver. Truex could either buoy DEI or be sucked to the bottom with its superstructure.
He more than carried on, leading 216 of 400 laps to win on June 4 at Dover and finishing third or better in three of the next four to jump from 16th to ninth in points. He knocked out four more top 10s in the last six races of the regular season, avoiding the late-season engine failures that dogged Earnhardt. He enters today's Chase race, the Dodge Dealers 400 at Dover (Del.) International Speedway, in sixth place, 40 points out of first.
"I think that's really in a sense what he's been waiting for and what he needs to continue to grow as a driver and get more confidence and become a champion contender,'' Earnhardt said of Truex's new role. "He needs to be a leader of a race team because he's that talented behind the wheel."
Maybe Truex was neither stoic nor oblivious, but prepared. This wasn't the first time a mentor had stepped aside, creating an opportunity for him to prove himself. His father, a winner in Busch North and a 19-time starter in the Busch series, retired after three races in 2000 so he could invest all of his time and resources in his son, then a Busch North rookie. The Juniors met during a Busch test at Richmond in 2003, and Earnhardt was sufficiently impressed to put him in one of DEI's Chance 2 Motorsports cars for that race. He joined the team full time in 2004, winning consecutive championships.
"Martin has always been the one to sit back and do his job," the elder Truex said. "He was the No. 2 driver (at DEI). He recognized that coming in. Now he's the No. 1 driver, and he'll step up."
Though there was "no tangible throne'' to ascend, Earnhardt said, Truex made a point with his first Nextel Cup victory; not as a leader, necessarily, but as a performer.
"There doesn't even have to be a leader if nobody wants to (be one),'' Earnhardt said. "I think he wanted it and when we made the decision to leave, he went out there and won at Dover and sort of stepped up to the plate and became that guy. I think that he wants to be that guy. I think he really wants to because he's raced underneath me for a couple years now and he answers all the questions about Dale Jr. and this, that and the other and he does it with patience. I would have a hard time putting up with it all the time.''
Video game pals, similar personalities in their guardedness and onetime roommates, Earnhardt and Truex remain friendly if not best friends. In the next few weeks, Truex will take Earnhardt bow-hunting for the first time. Somewhere in a thicket, Earnhardt is likely to impart more of the wisdom of a man about to hand over the keys to an empire: Enjoy the ride, even early morning wakeups for pre-Chase media blitzes of New York City.
"He's worked so hard to get there,'' Earnhardt said. "You look at all the photo albums and pictures of him coming up in go-carts and running his Modifieds and running the Busch (North) series. ... I feel like he knows how talented he is and he knows that he's the caliber of driver that needs to be the A driver or the No. 1 driver in the lineup. ... This is the perfect opportunity for him.''
Brant James can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8804.
Dodge Dealers 400, 1:30 p.m., Dover (Del.) International Speedway, Ch. 28
Through 27 of 36 races. These drivers are eligible for the title in the 10-race Chase for the Championship:
Driver Pts. Bk.
t1. Jimmie Johnson 5,210 -
t1. Jeff Gordon 5,210 -
3. Tony Stewart 5,200 10
4. Clint Bowyer 5,195 15
5. Kyle Busch 5,175 35
6. Martin Truex 5,170 40
7. Matt Kenseth 5,156 54
8. Carl Edwards 5,147 63
9. Denny Hamlin 5,128 82
10. Kevin Harvick 5,122 88
11. Jeff Burton 5,119 91
12. Kurt Busch 5,108 102