Martin Truex Jr. was struggling this season, but he was only 71 points out of the Chase going into Saturday. Now he's 238.
John Raoux / AP Enlarge
CHARLOTTE - Martin Truex's bid to make the Chase for the championship took a severe hit yesterday when NASCAR penalized his Dale Earnhardt Inc. team 150 points for bringing an illegal car to Daytona.
Truex's car failed its initial inspection last week at Daytona because the No. 1 Chevrolet failed to fit NASCAR's roof template. NASCAR officials seized the car and sent it to their Research and Development Center in Concord for further inspection.
"We've dug ourselves a hole, but we're not giving up. This team seems to respond the best when its back is against the wall," said Truex, who missed the only practice session before Saturday night's race because of the illegal car.
"We brought a new car to Daytona, and it fit all of the templates at our shop. It doesn't appear to have been anything intentional on our part, but it was still our responsibility. We'll deal with it and move on."
But it will be an uphill battle from here for the star driver at DEI, who is in a contract negotiation year.
The 150-point penalty drops Truex from 14th in the standings to 18th. The top 12 drivers make the Chase, and Truex has just eight races to get back into contention.
In addition, crew chief Kevin "Bono" Manion and car chief Gary Putnam were suspended from the next six races and placed on probation until the end of the year.
Manion was also fined $100,000.
"I hate that we're going to lose Kevin and Gary," Truex said. "Obviously, they are important to the team, and it'll be weird not having them at the track."
John Story, vice president of motorsports operations at DEI, said the team will use its 10-day window to decide if it will appeal the penalty.
"We are still trying to understand how the car fit our templates multiple times at the shop, but we respect NASCAR's determination that one of our cars did not exactly conform to their template at the track," Story said.
Truex, who won his only career Sprint Cup Series race last year at Dover, was DEI's only driver in championship contention. He made the Chase last season but finished 11th in the final standings.
This year has not been as solid for Truex, who has just five top-10 finishes through 18 races.
He went into Saturday night's race just 71 points out of Chase contention, but had to drive a backup car that got no practice and just two qualifying laps before the race.
While teammates Paul Menard and Mark Martin qualified first and second, and rookie Regan Smith was eighth, Truex qualified 35th.
He rallied somewhat to finish 17th in the race, but it wasn't enough to close the gap on 12th-place driver Tony Stewart.
Now he's 238 points out of 12th place, with 2004 Chase winner Kurt Busch and Daytona 500 winner Ryan Newman among the drivers he's got to pass to move back into contention.
The penalty comes at a tumultuous time for DEI.
Truex, the star of the team since Dale Earnhardt Jr. left this year, is also in a contract negotiation that has yet to be resolved. 2009 is an option year for both the team and the driver, but Truex has not yet agreed to return.
In addition, Martin said last week he's leaving at the end of the season to drive for Hendrick Motorsports. DEI plans to promote Aric Almirola into that seat full time, but sponsorship is in question as the U.S. Army has been shopping its funding across the garage.
Also, Smith's team has had just partial sponsorship all season and DEI has acknowledged it may have to cut down to just three teams if funding for Smith's car isn't found.
Also yesterday, multiple Internet reports suggested team owner Teresa Earnhardt is trying to sell all or part of the race team that was founded by her late husband, seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt.
Max Siegel, president of DEI, denied Earnhardt is trying to sell or searching for an investment partner.
"She's not selling it, I'm not buying it," Siegel said. "We get calls all the time, but nothing is on the block."
The recent trend in NASCAR has been for owners to take on outside investors as partners to secure financial stability. Most recently, Petty Enterprises sold majority ownership to Boston Ventures.
But Siegel said DEI is not currently looking for help.
"We're not for sale. We're not looking for partners," Siegel said. "I don't know where this stuff comes from."