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DEI looking to prove that Earnhardt not whole team

When Martin Truex Jr. crossed the finish line in third place at Texas Motor Speedway, it capped his best weekend in almost two months and gave Dale Earnhardt Inc. results it could celebrate.

No, it wasn't a victory. Those are hard to come by these days at DEI.

Bad luck, broken parts and blown motors have gotten in the way of wins, and Truex's victory at Dover in June marked the only time in the last 17 months that DEI has been able to fly the celebratory checkered flag outside its headquarters.

A team built from the bottom up by the late Dale Earnhardt to contend for Cup titles isn't really close, and his namesake son has two weeks left on his DEI career before he flees for powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports.

It's led many to predict DEI's days as a relevant race team are coming to a close, something the management group of the proud organization is fighting hard to prove wrong.

'Everything we hear, everything we read is all about how DEI is done. We're shutting down. It's just ridiculous,' said Max Siegel, president of global operations. 'Quite frankly, we're sick of hearing it. DEI is here to stay. We're not going anywhere.'

The negative perception was created during a tumultuous five-month period when Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his stepmother publicly sparred over his contract negotiations.

Teresa Earnhardt fired the first shot in a December interview in The Wall Street Journal, when she questioned whether Earnhardt wants to be a celebrity more than he wants to be a championship-winning race car driver.

The criticism deeply wounded Junior and fractured a relationship that had already teetered on the brink of irreparability. So long as his stepmother was in charge, he wanted nothing to do with his Daddy's company, and the growing animosity pushed him to announce in May he would leave at the end of this season.

But he didn't cite his disdain for Teresa and the way she manages DEI when he made his decision. Instead, Junior said it was DEI's mediocre on-track performance that made it clear he had to go elsewhere to win a title.

The harsh critique stung the 400-plus employees at DEI, who worried that without NASCAR's most popular driver in the stable, the company couldn't survive.

Siegel, who left Sony BMG Music Entertainment late last year to run the business side of DEI, has had to fight since May to prove otherwise. Along with industry veteran John Story, who joined DEI this season as vice president of motorsports operations, the two are campaigning to show DEI is on the way up and will be one of NASCAR's dominant teams.

The duo has prepared charts and graphs that show DEI ranks sixth overall in NASCAR with an average points position of 18th. The team is only one of three that has three cars inside the top 14 in owner points. The team has totaled more top-five finishes this season than 81 percent of the competition. It's one of only seven teams to score a Cup victory this year.

All true. DEI's cars have been strong.

Truex, who made the Chase for the championship, has led 506 laps this season while notching 12 top-10 finishes. Earnhardt, who is winless this season, ran at or near the front in many races and has led 433 laps.

Earnhardt's supporters will point to six blown motors as the reason he didn't make the Chase, but the 100-point penalty his team was assessed for using illegal brackets at Darlington is equally to blame.

But it's the behind-the-scenes doings at DEI that Siegel and Story are most proud of. Since Earnhardt's announcement, the team has made a flurry of changes that included merging its engine program with Richard Childress Racing and absorbing financially strapped Ginn Racing.

The Ginn acquisition pushed DEI to four full-time cars and gave it a state-of-the art shop equipped with the technology that Junior often complained DEI lacked. Located less than 10 minutes away from headquarters, the old Ginn shop (now jokingly referred to as DEI West) is being outfitted to house its entire Cup operation by the end of the year.

A brand new machine shop will be completed by the middle of December, giving DEI over 420,000-square feet of functional space. A 120,000-square foot engine shop will be completed by the end of 2008.

The existing shop, now known as DEI East, will house teams for the Busch and Busch East Series, and both programs are healthy thanks to a development program that includes Jeffery Earnhardt, Jesus Hernandez, Ricky Carmichael and 16-year-old Trevor Bayne.

There have been personnel additions through the Ginn merger, as well as subtractions as management has set out to follow a Hendrick-like path of employing only people who are truly committed to DEI.

DEI didn't stand in the way when crew chief Tony Eury Jr. said he wanted to go with Earnhardt to Hendrick, and allowed him to take a handful of crew members with him. They cut ties with others, trying to create more harmony on the shop floor.

Yet they still must overcome the perception that Teresa Earnhardt is an absentee owner with little interest in the day-to-day operations. A fear of public speaking has turned her into a media recluse, and she's turned down repeated requests to discuss the future of DEI with The Associated Press.

Rarely seen at the track, her appearance at pre-race activities at nearby Lowe's Motor Speedway last month turned heads as she walked down pit road toward Truex's car. Still, her management group insists she's hands-on, and argues her race-day attendance is unfairly scored.

'Everyone calls her this absentee owner, but they don't know how many calls a day we get from her, asking 'What's going on?' What happened to the motors? Why did Junior's wheel fall off? What do you need to fix things?' 'Siegel said. 'All people talk about is how they don't see her at the track. Well, they don't see Joe Gibbs at the track. They don't see George Gillett at the track. Roger Penske is up in Detroit until race day.

'It's just absurd how harshly she is judged.'

Some of that might end once Junior makes his move, and the public family squabbling finally ends. The breakup will benefit both sides, as Earnhardt can get a clean start and DEI can close the door on the drama that has often overshadowed its racing operations.

Personnel is being shuffled and a management group is being organized to put everyone in line with a common goal of working as a unified team to become one of NASCAR's elite organizations.

'We've reached a point where we only want people here who want to be here,' Siegel said. 'There's no more division. We can't afford it.'