Jeffrey Earnhardt is full of character – and it isn’t just because his grandfather, Dale Earnhardt, was called The Intimidator.
Indeed, deep beneath the largest shadow in the competitive world of NASCAR stands a guy who wants to earn it the hard way. Despite having a name that will turn nearly any head below the Maryland border, the 27-year-old from Mooresville, North Carolina, has found difficulty in making a career in the top series’ of NASCAR.
Making his first NASCAR starts in the K&N Pro Series East for Dale Earnhardt, Inc. in 2007, Earnhardt, with solid results in 25 career starts, got his first taste of national NASCAR when he made his XFINITY debut in 2009 at the age of 20.
Dipping into the Camping World Truck Series, capturing a career-best seventh at Daytona in 2011, Earnhardt landed a full-time XFINITY ride for Johnny Davis in time for the 2014 season, where he lined up with Cup Series regular Landon Cassill.
Finishing 18th in points, Earnhardt was without a full-time ride for 2015. Making six XFINITY starts for Viva Motorsports, a Sprint Cup Series opportunity was the last thing on the minds of many in the NASCAR garage.
And then it happened. Earnhardt made his debut at Richmond 2015, and, after more than a year, he has gained an immense amount of appreciation for what he’s learned and how he’s gotten here. For Talladega, Earnhardt had the opportunity to drive for BK Racing with a new sponsor in Starter alongside.
Frontstretch sat down with Jeffrey at Talladega to discuss his first race with BK Racing, memories of his late grandfather and his mindset thus far in his Sprint Cup career.
Zach Catanzareti, Frontstretch.com: You’re here with BK Racing, talk about how you were able to put that together.
Jeffrey Earnhardt: Obviously, we are constantly looking for more and more sponsors to keep improving our programs or to keep having opportunities like this; to come race at Talladega. The partnership with Starter came up and it was something they were really interested in doing, trying to get their brand out there and to support me as a driver.
One thing led to another. They were really interested in running the Talladega race. The past races this year I’ve been running the [No.] 32 and this race was already committed to Bobby Labonte. Being pretty good friends with Ron [Devine, BK Racing owner] and knowing that they’ve run three cars on several occasions this year, we reached out to see if this would be something he’d be interested in.
Fortunately, he accepted the offer and now here we are at Talladega and looking to make the best of it.
Catanzareti: And you’re doing Homestead as well, so what is it like having two races instead of just a one-off?
Earnhardt: The opportunity to fill two races I didn’t have on my schedule to race is great for me because I get to continue to better myself as a driver and get to brand myself with a great company like Starter. They’re a huge company with a huge brand. To be able to work with great companies like that is a big honor.
Catanzareti: How did you find them? Did they reach out to you?
Earnhardt: Like I said, we’re constantly reaching out to companies to see if it’s something that they think would be a good fit. Starter saw it as a great fit and a great opportunity. Like I said, what better to brand yourself with than something that is that big of a brand.
Catanzareti: You’re in a Toyota. It’s the first time an Earnhardt has ever been in a Toyota. Is that a big deal for you or that just something the fans are talking about?
Earnhardt: It is. It’s cool to get the opportunity to race under the Toyota banner. I feel like I’ve raced a little bit of everything now; I’ve think Iv been in everything but a Dodge and they’re not around anymore.
To get this opportunity and to be driving for a Toyota-backed team is great. I’m really excited to see what this Toyota power has got. Like I said, I’ve been driving a Ford all year and now I come over here and [I get to] see how these cars are. They said they work great in the draft. I got to experience a little bit of that in practice and it did. It sucked up really well and that’s all the things that make you excited for race day.
Catanzareti: The No. 32 is a single-car team, here you have teammates. I don’t believe you’ve ever had a teammate in a Cup race so what is that like?
Earnhardt: I haven’t had a teammate in a Cup race before, just had friends! And then they were drivers here at BK. To be able to be teammates with – I go a long way back with Matt [DiBenedetto], we have been good friends for a while now. To be able to be teammates with him and guys like David Ragan, who has proven himself before.
It’s just a great opportunity to come to superspeedway where teammates are really important. Teammates are important always but to have them at a superspeedway is a huge benefit and to know there are guys you can count on to work with and to have your back out there is a huge plus.
To have these two – Matt has done a great job all year long in the No. 83 and David, he has won here so he knows how to get it done here! To have them guys in my corner is a huge lift off the shoulders.
Catanzareti: David Ragan, he’s won here and at Daytona, having him on the team, how big is it having someone with such a large amount of experience.
Earnhardt: It’s huge. Like you said, just having someone who knows how to get it done is a big plus. He knows how to work the draft and make sure he sets himself up to be in the right position for the end of the race. That’s the kind of guy you have to lean on and make sure you take their advice because what they’ve done in the past has worked.
Catanzareti: What is your opinion on Talladega? You got your best XFINITY Series finish here. Do you like plate racing?
Earnhardt: I love plate racing. I love Talladega in general. I’m kind of biased, I’m really good friends with Grant Lynch, the president of the speedway here. I have really made a lot of friends around here, the security guards, officials here, the guys at the [International Motorsports] Hall of Fame. Everyone here at Talladega, I’ve just really taken a lot of liking to.
There’s great people all throughout NASCAR but it seems like – there is a lot of family history here. My grandpa, man, he won just about every time he came here. And a lot of family relationships from the past. I’m able to keep that relationship going.
To me it’s cool because I get to hear so many stories about my grandpa and stuff. It just makes me really, really like this place. I really love racing here, it’s always produced exciting racing and makes it fun. It’s a challenge for drivers. you never know what’s going to happen, you’re so sucked up next to the guy in front of you that you can’t see what’s gong on in front of you.
It makes it a fun race and an enjoyable race. You get to see who’s a better drafter at the end of the day.
Catanzareti: You are extending the Earnhardt streak here at Talladega. Definitely a big deal in the press this weekend. What is that like for you with Dale not being in the car?
Earnhardt: It’s cool, it would suck to break a streak like that. I mean, 74 races, that’s a long streak to ruin. To be able to be here and compete in this race – unfortunately, Dale Jr. isn’t here and it sucks. It sucks for the fans. Fans keep asking ‘When is he coming back?’ and all I know is that he’s doing all he can to get better as quickly as he can.
To be able to be here and keep that streak alive – it’s really cool. It’s cool when you look back and see the history that the Earnhardt name has here at Talladega, it’s pretty impressive. Hopefully, come Sunday, we’ll keep it looking pretty impressive.
Catanzareti: Any added pressure?
Earnhardt: Oh, always. There’s always added pressure. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s pressure I’m excited to take on. We all like a challenge, we’re all competitors and I’m ready to take that pressure and over-achieve it.
Catanzareti: What was your first memory of Talladega? Were you here as a kid, and did you really grow up around here?
Earnhardt: Not so much. Obviously, the race where my grandpa came from like 27th to win it in three laps was the one I think of the most. He was pretty incredible on what he could do on a superspeedway and in a racecar in general.
Talladega, it’s always been great memories. Like I said, I don’t know if it’s the fact that there are great people or the family history but it’s always nothing but great memories.
Catanzareti: It seems like a throwback weekend, you got the firesuit, the car, [crew chief] Doug Richert on the box.
Earnhardt: We are. What my grandpa did here was something I don’t think anyone could ever do. Someone once told me the percentage of times he’d come here and would win, it was a ridiculous number, something unreal that’s unheard of. To be able to run a paint scheme that similar to my grandpa’s and a suit that is similar is a huge honor.
My grandpa is my superhero. Kids like to dress up as Batman and Superman, the opportunity to get and try and somewhat feel those footsteps is pretty big to me and pretty special.
— Jeffrey Earnhardt (@JEarnhardt1) October 21, 2016
Catanzareti: NASCAR is a family sport. Walking around, everyone has their Dale Sr. story. It seems like they all saw him race, they saw him win here. What is that like for you walking around and learning more about him through other people?
Earnhardt: That’s probably my favorite part about being at the racetrack, just hearing the stories that people have to say about my grandpa or that time they met him. I’ve probably heard some of the best ones here at Talladega.
The friendships he had here and him and Grant – Grant Lynch told me one of the best ones. But to be able to hear those stories, it shows you how much appreciation and respect that man had. And it’s all because of his hard work and the appreciation and respect he showed back to the fans, employees and everyone involved in racing.
He was the guy that everyone went to. He was a big part of NASCAR.
Catanzareti: Is [father] Kerry coming out to the race?
Earnhardt: Unfortunately, my little sister, she’s taking priority. It’s completely understandable. She gets me every time I see her, too. She rodeos every weekend and my dad has really taken a big enjoyment to going and spending that time with her. It’s good. It makes me happy to see her get to spend that kind of time with my dad.
Growing up, always traveling, I didn’t get a whole lot of time to spend with him. So, it’s cool to see them get to spend that time together.
Catanzareti: In the No. 32 car, you’re coming off your career-best finish in Charlotte. Your expectations coming in, where are they ranked now? Have you reached them, maybe surpassed them?
Earnhardt: I feel like we’re getting there. I feel like I’m starting – I’m not really understanding the cars, but I’m getting a better understanding of the cars and what they like. How they react, how you need to have them prepped to make sure it’s good at the long stint of the race. It’s taken a while to really get used to and I have a ton more to learn.
I feel like the goals I’ve had set at the beginning of the year are starting to be achieved but I’m not satisfied. Obviously, every weekend you want to do better, you want to exceed any expectations you’ve ever set. Each weekend, I try to set that bar higher and higher. If we can keep getting close to that goal or achievement I had set to want to do, I’m just going to keep building that bar and making it tougher and tougher to achieve. Until there is no more to achieve.
Catanzareti: Is anything set in stone for 2017?
Earnhardt: There is not. We are in the process of putting stuff together. Obviously, a lot of it is sponsor-dependent and all that is going to depend on what we can put together and what seems like the right opportunity for us. We’re out here struggling, fighting, doing it the hard way but I’m appreciating it a lot more going it this way because there’s no hand-outs, you know? There’s not someone just giving me the opportunity.
People ask me all the time why Junior doesn’t put me in a car. I’m not sitting here looking for a hand-out. I want to earn whatever opportunities I can get. Going out and doing it myself has made it more enjoyable and appreciative to me.
Catanzareti: Compare full-time racing to part-time. With the Cup Series, you’re not here every single week but you have gotten a lot of starts. How different is that?
Earnhardt: It’s been nice because I’ve ran more races than I thought I was going to this year. So, that’s been the plus. Obviously, Id like to be there every weekend. All that’s going to do is shorten my learning curve. It sucks not being there every weekend but I have gotten the opportunity to run several races this year and I’m very grateful for that opportunity.
With Can-Am stepping up and doing all they’ve done, Go FAS letting me get in their seat and drive their cars every weekend, or most weekends, and then this opportunity with BK and Starter. I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had and what I’ve done, but you want to be there every weekend because it’s just going to make you better.
Catanzareti: Tough question, but what would a win Sunday mean to you?
Earnhardt: [Laughs] I got asked that question yesterday, it would mean the world. I don’t even know words can describe what it would mean to me. I told the guy yesterday, I said I’d probably sleep on the start-finish line for the next three nights or something.
I don’t know if I’d leave Talladega for a few days. I’d really want to sit here and take all that in because it would be pretty special. Anything can happen. We’re out here to try and achieve that goal. If we do, everybody hold on because it’s going to be a fun ride!
Catanzareti: You’re going to build a new house in the infield?
Earnhardt: Yeah, I might move to Talladega if that happens!
Catanzareti: I have a few photos throughout your career. You can just tell me what’s going on and maybe a back-story that went into it.
Earnhardt: Oh yeah, that’s the [K&N Pro Series] East. I’m trying to figure out where that’s at, I’m not sure what track that is. That was some good times, man. We had a lot of fun, obviously, driving for my grandpa’s race team was a big deal for me to get that opportunity. Unfortunately, it’s not there anymore and it sucks it’s gone the way it’s gone but, man, that was fun racing back then.
I was a young kid, thought the streets were paved with gold. When that deal was gone, it was a big shocker and a wake-up call. Definitely a lot of fun there.
Earnhardt: [Laughs] Looking a little scrawny back then! But yeah, getting to race with guys like Joey Logano, the you have Marc Davis there and Chase Austin. They were good guys, they were a lot of fun to race with. Obviously, Joey, he’s freaking done great things in this sport so far and to be able to say we raced and battled really hard with some guys like that, it makes you believe even more that you belong here. You know at one point, hell, you were outrunning that guy.
It’s cool to look back on pictures like that and see how – it’s not so cool looking back and see how scrawny I was! I’m looking a little small there. Like I said, that was fun, man. It was a big learning time in my career and a great opportunity that I wish had lasted a little longer.
Catanzareti: This is from your MMA debut, you said you were scrawny but you look pretty good there.
Earnhardt: Looking a little more beefier there. The MMA thing was huge, huge deal for me as far as a character builder went. I got one of my best friends Nick [standing behind the camera] to thank for that. He’s the one that convinced me to step in a cage and fight somebody.
Just to see what you’re willing to do. You’re going into something you had no clue about. I had a wrestling background from high school, but I’ve never gotten in fights or anything. I didn’t know how I was going to act once I got punched in the face. But to see how hard you’re willing to work to achieve something you don’t know anything about, was a huge character builder for me. You learn a lot about yourself and how hard you’re willing to dig deep to achieve those goals.
[Below is the video capture of our conversation with Jeffrey Earnhardt]
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