BUSCH: Points-leader ready for Michigan challenge

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Let's see if we've got this straight now? Martin Truex Jr. is currently leading NASCAR's Busch Series, drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., hangs out with Dale Earnhardt Jr., makes his Michigan International Speedway debut in ...

BROOKLYN, Mich. -- Let's see if we've got this straight now? Martin Truex Jr. is currently leading NASCAR's Busch Series, drives for Dale Earnhardt, Inc., hangs out with Dale Earnhardt Jr., makes his Michigan International Speedway debut in Saturday's Cabela's 250 with a field featuring 13 full-time NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers and 20 drivers looking to pull double duty, and doesn't appear to be under too much pressure.

OK, he has to be under a little pressure. That would be a given under the circumstances of racing with one of the top teams and being chummy with one of the sport's superstars. But this 24-year-old native of Mayetta, New Jersey, isn't showing it. In fact, he says he's having fun while learning to be a top driver himself.

And why shouldn't he be? After all, in his first full season of NASCAR competition, Truex has won six poles and four races and scored 15 top-10 finishes in 22 starts to hold a 117-point lead over Kyle Busch in the point standings. It's an enviable position, but he is both grateful and unsurprised at the success of the 2004 season.

"You know, it doesn't seem like it's a job because it's so much fun most of the time, but it's been a good time," Truex said following a recent test at MIS. "I've learned a lot and it's great working with an organization like DEI. And they make it easy on me and it's just been fun winning races."

Truex made 10 starts in Busch competition for DEI last season and finished with a flourish, coming home second in the final two races of the year. He encountered some problems in the 2004 season opener at Daytona, but has come on strong to take the lead in the race for the title.

He's not surprised as some have been at his 2004 prowess.

"We knew we thought we were capable of doing it, you know," he continued. "We had some great runs together last year and only a few races together and had a lot of confidence coming into the year, but you never know until it happen--you know how good you're going to do. So it hasn't really been a surprise, but it's been, I guess, a little bit of a surprise for most people other than us, you know, as a team."

Being part of DEI means contact with Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is currently one of the top three drivers in the chase for the NASCAR NEXTEL Cup. A lot of people assume Truex is frequently getting advice from Earnhardt--hence, the success this year.

"Everybody asks that question (about advice from Earnhardt)," Truex explained. "To be honest with you, as far as the races on track goes, not much. I mean we kind of each do our own thing and when we're away from the track, you know, we're real good friends and we just like hang out and do normal stuff. But, you know, we don't talk too much about racing as most people think off the track, so we just kind of like to have a good time."

Of course, Earnhardt isn't above making an assessment of Truex.

"I feel like after he did at the end of the season running second and being competitive and competing for wins there, I felt like he had to know he was going to be in this position," Earnhardt said while testing at MIS with Truex. "He had to know that he had that capability and the team definitely had that capability, so yeah, I feel like he was going to be as good.

"I felt like by now he should have had a couple more wins. They kind of struggled over the last couple months, but they've still managed to get good finishes. But I felt like he was really going to pick up, you know, at least have six wins by this point after the way he started the year so hopefully. I think that they can agree as a team that they still could gain and pick up a little bit on performance and grab a few more wins before the season's out."

Earnhardt believes Truex has what it takes to make it to the next level--Truex already subbed for him (at Loudon) as he recovered from burns suffered in a sports car accident. However, he wants him to gain more experience before moving up.

"I think they've got a shot at the championship this year and should start next season out with the same attitude hopefully after one more full season in the Busch series that he could be ready to move into the NEXTEL Cup Series," Earnhardt added. "I believe he will and hopefully we have a good supportive financial backing from the sponsor that he relates to and enjoys and a good group of guys. I mean, it's kind of hard to see that far out, but I feel like he's doing his part as far as driving is concerned. He's doing a really good job."

The immediate challenge for Truex is the 2-mile superspeedway at MIS, a track he has never raced on. A recent test there gave him a taste of what to expect and he liked what he saw as he eyes the upcoming Cabela's 250.

"It's cool--I like it a lot," Truex said. "It's fast so I think its going to be one of (those) races where you know obviously you have to have a good handling car everywhere. But it's one of (those) tracks where you know you need to be good on long runs because there's usually not a lot of cautions and that's what we're trying to work on right now is just get our car consistent and fast.

"And, you know, that's what we need to do every week so it's a cool, wide-open track you'll be able to draft, I imagine. We ran real good at California--pretty similar--a little bit more vacuum, so we'll see what happens."

In addition to the challenge of MIS itself, Saturday's race will have the added factor of an unusually high number of NASCAR NEXTEL Cup runners with Rusty Wallace, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, defending Cabela's race winner Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Kasey Kahne, Robby Gordon, Jamie McMurray, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle all entered.

Truex looks forward to the challenge.

"Oh, I think it's great for the series, you know," Truex said. "It gets a lot of attention, turns a lot of people on to our series and obviously it's helped guys like me and I think it's great. It's fun to race with them. You learn a lot and you know they are the best at what they do and if you beat (those) guys, then you know you're the best, so it's really fun racing with them, I think."

And some day, Martin Truex Jr. hopes to be racing with them on a full-time basis. Right now, there's the unfinished business of learning, winning races and capturing the NASCAR Busch Series title.

Great seats are still available for Saturday's NASCAR Busch Series Cabela's 250, featuring the AOL for Broadband post-race concert featuring Cledus T. Judd, as well as Friday's AAA Pole Day. Along with points-leader Truex, thirteen NASCAR NEXTEL Cup Series drivers are expected to compete, including Rusty Wallace's first Busch Series race since 1997, Tony Stewart, Bobby Labonte, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth, Casey Mears, Joe Nemechek, Kevin Harvick, Michael Waltrip, Greg Biffle, Robby Gordon, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray.

The AOL for Broadband post-race concert featuring Cledus T. Judd, Driving Sideways and The Hype will follow approximately one-hour after the completion of the Cabela's 250 in the Water Tower Lot across from the Speedway's Administration building outside turn 1 of the track.

To purchase tickets for the Cabela's 250, log on to www.MISpeedway.com, or call the MIS ticket hotline at 1-800-354-1010. The MIS ticket hotline is open from 9:00A.M. -- 9 P.M., seven days a week throughout the upcoming race weekend.


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Drivers Dale Earnhardt Jr. , Matt Kenseth , Bobby Labonte , Tony Stewart , Rusty Wallace , Michael Waltrip , Kevin Harvick , Joe Nemechek , Greg Biffle , Robby Gordon , Jamie McMurray , Kasey Kahne , Martin Truex Jr. , Kyle Busch , Mark Martin