You'd never know he had a famous last name. Jeffrey Earnhardt has spent the past few seasons hustling for sponsorship, and last year went months in between races. He squeezes what he can out of cars that are at a decided financial disadvantage. He brings his own racing seat with him, and drives to some events in a motorhome that's more like a camper van.
More than any family connection, it was all that effort that impressed his uncle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. So when JR Motorsports had an open seat in its No. 5 car for Friday night's Nationwide Series event at Richmond International Raceway, the call ultimately went to Jeffrey -- who was working on a boat and getting ready to go out fishing when the phone rang.
"I was pretty shocked," said the 23-year old son of Kerry Earnhardt. "It wasn't really the phone call I thought I was getting. I didn't expect him to call me up and offer me that. But it was pretty exciting. And I think he's pretty exited about it, too. He told me he just wants to go have some fun. I think I've thanked him about 100 times. But he just keeps saying, 'Let's go have fun.' And hopefully this will lead to more opportunities for me as a driver, and help me throughout my career."
It's a big step in some of the best equipment Jeffrey Earnhardt has ever been in, and a jolt to a national-series career that's endured its share of fits and starts. Over the past three seasons Earnhardt has competed in a handful of events in the Nationwide and Camping World Truck circuits, and even made a foray into sports-car racing. This year, he's been in a more regular ride with Go Green Racing's No. 79 car, but that vehicle still doesn't compete every week. It hasn't been easy, not even for a driver from one of NASCAR's most famous families.
"If you want something bad enough, you work to make it happen. That's the way I look at it," he said. "We've been busting ass pretty hard to try and get sponsors, and it's not easy, especially with the economy these days. It's hard to find that sponsor that's going to give you that $6 million to go race."
The effort, though, didn't go unnoticed. JRM's No. 5 car is typically driven by Brad Sweet or Kasey Kahne, who split a 27-race Great Clips sponsorship. With the Richmond race open, JRM looked to fill the gap with someone else. Josh Berry, who drives a late model for the organization, didn't have NASCAR approval for Richmond. The team couldn't put something together with Cole Whitt, who drove full-time for JRM last season. It was Earnhardt Jr. who asked his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller -- what about Jeffrey?
"Dale looks at this, and he's seen Jeffrey really working hard over the last two and half, three years," said Miller, general manager at JRM. "What Jeffrey has put into his career so far is a lot of hard work and grit. And that means a lot to Dale Jr., to see him personally going after it so hard. So that's just built respect on both sides, for Jeffrey and Dale, and made it to where Dale is eager to help where he can."
The result is Jeffrey Earnhardt's first start for his uncle's race team, which is also co-owned by Miller and Rick Hendrick. The vehicle is backed by existing JRM sponsor Keen Automotive, which put the logo of its online Corvette parts store on the car. Jeffrey Earnhardt has never raced at Richmond, although he and regular JRM driver Regan Smith took late models up there several weeks ago to help him get a feel for the .75-mile track.
"That was a huge advantage for me, because I had never been there before and really couldn't have told you what the track was like," he said. "To be able to go up there and run the late model and then go over all the notes with Regan that he has from previous races there, it's a big help for me going into that race. ? The equipment is every bit capable of being a top-five car. Me as a driver, I'm not 100 percent sure where exactly I stand. But I do know I have a lot to learn, and there are going to be a lot of good Cup guys in this race. So I'd say realistically a top-10 is what we'd want to shoot for."
Earnhardt's best finish at NASCAR's national level is seventh, in a Rick Ware Racing truck at Daytona on the opening weekend of 2011. But he hasn't been in equipment as strong as JRM's No. 5 car since he was a teenager, and competing in the K&N Pro Series East for Dale Earnhardt Inc., the team founded by his grandfather.
"We just told him to go out, and if he just makes the laps and is consistent, it will be real simple for him to have a top-15 finish," Miller said. "And then people are writing about the fact that he did a good job and finished the race. He doesn't have to be overly aggressive. He just has to use his head and not be stupid, because he's going to have a good race car under him. He's not going to know how good it is until he gets in it this weekend. He'll also have a full seven- or eight-person team behind him. He's probably going to feel a little bit like royalty because he's not going to have to do everything by himself."
Although it's just a one-race deal, Jeffrey Earnhardt -- whose No. 79 car wasn't scheduled to race at Richmond -- still relishes the chance. "It's a huge opportunity. It's obviously a step toward that direction I want to go," he said. "? Even though it's just for one race, it's kind of cool to step in a car you know is going to be prepared to its best."
In that kind of gratitude, Miller and Earnhardt Jr. see humility from a driver who perhaps didn't show it as often earlier in his career. Everything changed when DEI shut down its motorsports branch, forcing their nephew to face a stark reality.
"The thing for Jeffery is, I think there was a period of time in is life when he was running for Dale Earnhardt Inc., and as a young kid, you look at that, and it's really easy to take it for granted," Miller said. "At that time of his life, he was on cloud nine and having that opportunity to run those races for DEI. Then when that fell apart, it kind of brought him to a place to where he realized just how hard it was to get that opportunity. He's worked really hard since then to get in race cars. So I think the past several years have humbled him and made him see this is such hard work, and it takes so many pieces to come together."
No question, he's working at it. And these days he gets some help from his famous uncle, a regular source of advice at the race track. How did Earnhardt Jr. deal with the frustration of a disappointing run at Martinsville a few weeks ago? He spent some time with his nephew.
"He's a busy man, and it's hard for him to get time away from sponsor deals and all that," Jeffrey Earnhardt said. "But this year he's been talking to me a lot and helping me by giving me feedback on what their cars are doing in the few Nationwide races that he's run. And even the Cup races, talking about how much the car changes through practice. I know at Vegas, I was asking him quite a few questions because we were struggling, and I didn't get a whole lot of practice there. So I tried to feed off him as much I could, and he helped a lot. Being able to have this relationship now ? it's been pretty good. Dale Jr. has definitely come around more, and definitely given me a lot more advice for racing, and helped be a coach on the side as much as he can."
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