By DAN GELSTON
AP Sports Writer
TALLADEGA, Ala. -- Martin Truex Jr. is aware of the criticism that Dale Earnhardt Inc. might be in trouble. One car is leaving at the end of the season, sponsorship is scarce, and the wins have all dried up.
Daunting challenges are surely ahead for DEI, but as the face of the organization, Truex isn't ready to say their time as a contending team in Sprint Cup is over. Truex bristled at the idea that DEI can't return next year as a stable, competitive organization -- and the 2007 Chase driver expects to be the one to lead the renaissance.
"For everybody to look at our season and say we haven't performed or DEI is in big trouble, they're not looking in the right places," Truex said. "It's not fair. We're going to be just fine."
Maybe, but this season hasn't really offered much proof that everything is fine with DEI or Truex.
Truex failed to build any momentum off last season when he raced his way into the Chase, won his first career Sprint Cup race and appeared on the brink of becoming a regular threat to win and contend for a title. Truex has only three top-five finishes and eight top-10s this season, down from his seven top-fives and 14 top-10s a year ago, including a third, seventh and sixth in the final three Chase races of the year. He finished 11th in the final standings.
More solid than spectacular for a chunk of the season, Truex was the only of DEI's four drivers to contend for a spot in the coveted 12-driver Chase field. But a blown engine in Texas and another late-race accident at Talladega in a pair of April races spoiled what had been solid runs. The more crippling blow came in July when his team was penalized 150 points for bringing an illegal car to Daytona. The penalty knocked Truex from 14th in the standings to 18th, all but ending his shot at a repeat run for the title.
"We should be in the Chase. Our team is capable of being in the Chase," Truex said. "Without an engine blowup and a 150-point penalty, we're in."
Maybe, but a handful of drivers who fell just outside the top 12 could point to an accident here or blown engine there that also cost them a shot at driving for a meaningful prize over the final 10 Cup races.
Truex is 17th in the standings and was knocked out of Sunday's race at Talladega Superspeedway after only 68 laps when he was caught up in a wreck.
With a trip to Victory Lane all that's really left to accomplish this year, Truex might have to turn his attention to helping DEI net some sponsorship deals to keep it a four-car team. Truex has a full-time sponsor in Bass Pro Shops for next year, but the U.S. Army is leaving the car Aric Almirola will drive, and Regan Smith's entry has not had full funding all of this year.
Paul Menard announced last week he will leave DEI at the end of the season to join Yates Racing.
Truex, who assumed the role of top guy at DEI when Dale Earnhardt Jr. left for Hendrick Motorsports, wished Menard had given the organization more notice he was leaving the team. He has faith Almirola can be competitive over a full season in the ride he shared this year with Mark Martin, and Regan Smith is leading the rookie standings.
"I'm not really sure what the deal is or why we've been having trouble finding sponsorships," Truex said.
Smith nearly pulled off his first-career victory at Talladega, but his last-lap pass below the yellow out-of-bounds line was ruled illegal and dropped him to 18th. DEI got a needed boost last weekend when it qualified all its drivers in the top 10 and saw Menard finish second and Almirola 13th.
"That's the main thing I want people to remember, the day that DEI had as an organization," Smith said. "We had four great cars, any of which could have won the race. We've been kicked around some in the media this year and a good bit in the last week, so we needed to have day like we had."
While Truex signed a one-year deal to stay with DEI through 2009, he hasn't committed beyond next season because he wants to make sure the team remains committed to fielding multiple entries.
"Obviously, we can't be a one-car team. That's not going to work," he said. "We'll just see where it goes. I feel confident we're going to fix it, were going to make it better. We're going to have a great season next year and a great end to this year."