DEI Is M-I-A

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. - Take a look at the speed charts from Sunday's Daytona 500 qualifying session and you'll have to go a long way down to find the team that has dominated restrictor plate racing the last several years.

The DEI trio of Martin Truex, Jr., Michael Waltrip and defending Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt, Jr., struggled mightily on Sunday. Part-time Cup driver Truex, Jr. was the best of the bunch at 31st while Waltrip limped home 33rd and Earnhardt, Jr. came in an almost unbelievable 39th.

This is the team that has won 11 of the last 16 restrictor plate races.

Ouch.

"We've been real slow since we've been here," a perplexed Junior said afterward. "We were slow in the test. So our expectations have been pretty low as far as qualifying. We picked up a little bit so that made the team happy. We picked up about a tenth. But we didn't expect to be real high on the board."

Sunday's effort was nothing short of a crash landing for a team that has never started a plate race further back than 14th on the grid.

The question is obvious...why? How could a team that has been so dominate at Daytona and Talladega over the last six seasons suddenly find themselves at the tail end of the field?

Earnhardt's answer is simple....power.

"It's hard to do it by myself," he said. "We're way, way down on horsepower. And that's just the simple fact of it."

Despite the qualifying troubles, Earnhardt does see a silver lining. The Budweiser Chevrolet was able to run in the lead pack during early practice sessions, which Earnhardt thinks bodes well for Thursday's Gatorade Duel at Daytona qualifying races and SUnday's Daytona 500.

"The car races really well in the draft," he said. "If everything works fine, we'll have a good race on Thursday and get up front sooner or later. But, to run by ourselves, we need more steam underneath the hood. I've kind of seen it coming and the test wasn't that good."

Part of the equation must also give credit to other teams who have spent more time, energy and money on developing their restrictor plate programs. Tired of being trampled by the DEI powerhouse every time Daytona and Talladega rolled around, teams such as Hendrick Motorsports and Richard Childress Racing have stepped up their programs in recent years and closed the gap.

"Well, I'm just so impressed with the job these guys have done on this DuPont Chevrolet," said Jeff Gordon, who followed his Hendrick teammate Jimmie Johnson with the third fastest time on Sunday. "Preparing for Daytona takes a lot of time and effort and these guys have put a lot into it."

With DEI's much-publicized swap between Earnhardt and Waltrip's crews already putting the spotlight on the team, the qualifying stumble was something they'd hope to avoid. Second guessers are already questioning the shake-up and wondering if it had something to do with the problems right out of the box.

But Earnhardt doesn't appear too worried yet.

"I think I can get it up front," he said. "We're just going to have to work a little harder."







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