2006 Team Performance
DEI may not have been reborn in 2006, but it definitely came off life support. One year after swapping the teams and cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Michael Waltrip, management at DEI got things back to normal. They emphasized better performance on downforce tracks and got Junior back in the chase for the championship, where his legion of fans will tell you he perpetually belongs. Earnhardt Jr. wasn't picking up six wins like he did in 2004, but neither was he chewing up sub-20th-place finishes like they were candy (he had 10 of those in '04 and 15 in '05, but just nine last season). In short, 2006 was the year Junior learned patience and diversified his talent to extend well beyond SuperSpeedways. He was consistently good at the two-milers in Fontana and Michigan for the first time ever, and he returned to excellent performance at the other cookie-cutters after two-years of underwhelming results at them. Did DEI miss Waltrip? Well, it surely missed Mikey's star power, but the truth is that Martin Truex Jr.'s first season as a full-time DEI driver exceeded Waltrip's last: Truex ended the 2006 season 19th in points with five top-10s and five DNFs; Waltrip's 2005 campaign saw him finish 25th in points with seven top-10s and 10 DNFs. Truex will look to build on the momentum he established in the final weeks of 2006, when he turned in six top-15 finishes in his last nine events.
2007 Team Outlook
Maybe its because he's far and away the most popular driver in the sport that every year pundits take care to say, "This is the season Junior finally puts it all together." But is 2006 finally the year? Could be. You had to like what he did on tracks that he hadn't had much success prior to 2006. If not some bad luck on the SuperSpeedways, he might've finished higher than fifth overall in points. The No. 8 team seems like a group that's ready to be good everyplace they race. Truex needs to prove he's more than just a Busch star (kind of the equivalent of being a AAAA baseball prospect.) I liked the fact that Truex focused mainly on Nextel Cup this past season (he ran just six Busch Series events) and I'm hoping the 2007 Busch schedule he runs is similarly limited. The third-man-in for DEI will be Paul Menard, who had the highest Busch Series points finish of any non-full-time Nextel Cup driver. Menard did run seven Nextel Cup events in 2006 -- kind of a toe-dipping -- in preparation for his inheritance of the No. 15 once driven by Waltrip. Truex and Menard are each 26 years old and thus still learning the big-boy ropes. So, While it wouldn't be an utter shock to see them compete for a few race wins, they're probably not going anywhere in points. They'll leave that up to Junior, who'll be Chase-bound once more.
1 - Martin Truex, Jr.
Best Finish: 2nd
Poles, top-5s, top-10s, DNFs: 0, 2, 5, 5