DOVER, Del. — DEI returned to Victory Lane with a junior, Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s unheralded and previously winless teammate, Martin Truex Jr.
After another weekend of nonstop Earnhardt speculation, Truex gave the Dale Earnhardt Inc. team a much-needed victory Monday in the 400-mile race at Dover International Speedway.
“It feels good to hush up all that and solidify the fact that we are here for real,” Truex said. “We are going to win races and contend for championships in the future.”
But news of longtime NASCAR chairman Bill France Jr.’s death overshadowed Truex’s first career victory and even silenced the Earnhardt rumors, at least for a while.
Truex won for the first time in 58 career points races on what the New Jersey native has long considered his hometown track. He ended a dominant five-race winning streak for Hendrick Motorsports, leading 216 of the 400 laps on the Monster Mile in NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow.
Rumors have swirled for weeks about what team Earnhardt will drive for next season. Now, perhaps, Truex can talk about his win instead of the latest Earnhardt whispers.
His message was this: DEI is far from finished, even without Junior.
“Junior is a great asset. Junior has been a great teammate for me. A mentor for me,” Truex said. “But we can go on. We can win races. We showed that today.”
Certainly the day’s wait for the Autism Speaks 400 was worth it for Truex, now closing in on being one of the top 12 drivers for the Chase. He’s eight points behind Mark Martin, who’s 12th and running a part-time schedule this season.
“The Chase is definitely not out of the question for us, especially with the momentum we have,” Truex said. “I think we’ve got what it takes to do it. We’ve still got a ways to go to have a shot at the championship. We’ve still got stuff to work on.”
After rain washed out the race Sunday and fell hard overnight, blowers were still out while the cars were out on the grid waiting for their pace laps. But the sun peeked out right as the green flag dropped, which led to a clear and clean day of racing.
Pole-sitter Ryan Newman, who led most of the first half of the race and 135 laps overall, was denied his first win since 2005 and finished second. Carl Edwards, who won the Busch Series race Saturday, was third.
Newman’s runner-up finish was the best by a Dodge this season, and he’s moved from 26th to 16th in the standings over the last five races.
“He definitely likes this racetrack, and that’s unfortunate for me,” Newman said. “Just to be up front all day and lead a lot of laps is a great feeling, even on a Monday.”
Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth rounded out the top five.
Hendrick Motorsports had won five straight races and nine of the past 10 Nextel Cup races, but only points leader Jeff Gordon (9th) finished in the top 10. Casey Mears was 13th; Jimmie Johnson was 15th and Kyle Busch 17th.
Gordon has a 152-point lead over Johnson in the points standings.
“It was a good points day for us. We’ll take it,” Gordon said.
Mears won the Coca-Cola 600 last week, giving Nextel Cup two first-time winners in consecutive races. It was the first time the series had consecutive first-time winners since Tony Stewart and Joe Nemechek in 1999.
Truex has not seen his Busch Series success _ consecutive championships in 2004 and 2005 _ carry over into his first two Cup seasons. But he gained momentum two weeks ago when he won the Nextel Open at Charlotte and earned a spot in NASCAR’s All-Star race.
“This is way bigger than the Open,” Truex said. “This is my first win. This is awesome.”
Earnhardt had hoped to turn a second-place qualifying effort into his first win of the season but was plagued by tire woes, dropped four laps back at one point and finished 22nd.
Earnhardt congratulated Truex in Victory Lane, telling his teammate he knew he could win.
“It means a lot,” Truex said. “He’s been a great friend.”
Truex led for 51 laps late in the race, before Newman and Edwards took turns out front. Johnson even made a late run at Truex until problems with his right rear tire dropped him back.
“I went from catching the No. 1 a little bit at a time to being really loose and losing spots,” Johnson said.
Kurt Busch and Tony Stewart were knocked out of a solid finish after their cars made contact on lap 271, bringing out the yellow flag. NASCAR parked Busch. He was 42nd, and Stewart returned from an extended stay in the garage to finish 40th.
“It’s about racing people with respect, and he hasn’t done that with anybody for a year,” Stewart said.
Truex was too far out in front to worry about any of that action.
“You never feel like you have them until you actually have them,” he said.
For once, Truex got ‘em.