NASCAR centerpiece story for May 27.
It's not exactly been a stellar year for Martin Truex Jr., in his first season as the No. 1 driver at Dale Earnhardt Inc.
But despite the fact that he's ranked 15th in the Sprint Cup standings and crashed out to finish a disappointing 34th in Sunday's Coca-Cola 600, Truex is a happy guy this week.
The reason is simple: the Mayeta, N.J., native can't wait to return to his "home track," Dover International Speedway, for this coming Sunday's Best Buy 400.
Dover earned his first career Cup victory a year ago on the tough one-mile track. And given the way this season has gone so far, Truex could use a lift – and certainly another win – Sunday at Dover.
"I'm real excited to go back there," Truex said. "It doesn't feel like it's been a year since my first win. We felt like we should have won a few since then.
"Hopefully, the racing gods will return the favor and do us justice. It's a great track for me, I love going there and feel we can go there and win again."
Truex is in almost the same position going to Dover this year that he was a year ago. Last season, he was 16th in the standings going into the race.
The resulting win helped him jump to 12th in the points and he continued to improve, eventually making the Chase for the Cup, something his then-teammate and former No. 1 driver at DEI, Dale Earnhardt Jr., failed to do.
Yet, 15th in the points going back to Dover this year isn't exactly where Truex thought he'd be at the one-third point of the season.
"We've had fast cars but had a lot of things bite us, just like the beginning of last year," Truex said. "There's no way we should be 15th in the points.
"That's a little frustrating because I know we're a lot better than that. We've had some great runs slip away – engines, crashes, flat tires, things like that which you can't change."
Truex has been distracted somewhat the last three weeks because DEI took the unusual move of invoking the option year of his contract for 2009. Truex initially balked at part of the automatic renewal, but now refuses to talk about it.
While other Cup team owners are looking to potentially steal him away from DEI, Truex is taking his time in making arguably the biggest decision of his career to date.
But more importantly, while Truex tests the waters by talking to other teams, it's pretty apparent that DEI does not want to lose him.
"We want DEI to be Martin's home for many more years to come, to win a lot more races and to win championships here," DEI vice president John Story said. "We feel he's just coming into his prime as a Sprint Cup driver and we don't want him going anywhere."
Can lightning strike twice for Truex, namely winning his second career Cup race this Sunday, as well as once again lay the groundwork for a Chase run, just like last year?
"Last year, this was kind of the turning point going into next week," Truex said. "We're ahead of where we were then and I feel like we're a better team than we were last year, so we should end up ahead of the game.
"Hopefully, with a little bit of luck, we'll turn it around and we'll make some of our own, get some good finishes and get up in the points. A couple of good finishes and we could be right where we should be and we could focus on winning and making that Chase."
Jerry Bonkowski is National NASCAR Columnist for Yahoo! Sports and a featured contributor to Gatehouse News Service. He can be reached at NASCARColumnist@Yahoo.com.
THE TRUEX FILE:
-After leading 581 laps across last year's 36 races, Truex has led just 13 laps in the first 12 events of 2008. His best finish thus far this year: fifth at Richmond.
-Truex, who won back-to-back Busch Series championships in 2004 and 2005, turns 28 on June 20.
-Truex loves hunting and fishing almost as much as he loves driving a race car.