Earnhardt is a name that is connected directly with the NASCAR fan base. But Jeffrey Earnhardt is just getting going.
At 29 years old, Earnhardt has been around racing his entire life. He’s competed in NASCAR races since 2009, though he made it to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series on a weekly basis beginning in 2016 competing for Go Fas Racing. Over the past two years, he’s made a living running in low-budget equipment, trying to make a name for himself.
This season, Earnhardt was scheduled to run the full season with StarCom Racing, yet another small, start-up team. But after the fifth race of the season at Auto Club Speedway, the two parties mutually parted. For the next four months, Earnhardt ran in just two Cup races, before striking a deal with Gaunt Brothers Racing at Pocono Raceway.
In an interview with Frontstretch, Earnhardt discusses why competing with Gaunt Brothers Racing was the best opportunity of his Cup career, if he belongs in the Cup Series, being an Earnhardt and much more.
Dustin Albino, Fronstretch: How would you assess the 14 races you’ve competed in thus far this season?
Jeffrey Earnhardt: Not terrible, and I think things are really going well here at Gaunt Brothers with the support we’re getting from Toyota. They allow me to use the simulator and stuff to better myself as a driver, allowing me to add confidence when we come to these tracks. Just knowledge and knowing the feel of the racecar.
I would say it was really rough at the very beginning with StarCom. It was probably the best move to step away from that and try and find a better opportunity.
We’ve had speed every race we’ve been in this year, but we can’t seem to put the whole weekend together with Gaunt Brothers. We’re there and we know we’re capable of beating on some doors with guys that we probably shouldn’t be as fast as. When you’re able to compete against teams that have newer and better equipment, it makes you feel good.
Albino: Is this the first time you’ve been able to use a simulator?
Earnhardt: Yeah, first time getting to use a manufacturer simulator. The manufacturer simulators are state of the art and are very nice.
You can take so much away from changing driver styles and being more like one of their other drivers that might help you and knowing what to look for of the feel in a car and make sure when we come here you say, ‘hey, this is what it felt like in the simulator, let’s try making our car feel the same.’
Albino: You began the year with StarCom Racing. What happened there?
Earnhardt: It was a nightmare. A lot of the things that needed to be fixed, and they’ve made a lot of changes to improve their performances and their employees. It’s tough because it is a start-up team, so it’s hard to be barking orders and looking for changes and expect them to listen. Obviously, they realized the changes I wanted were the changes that needed to be made because they ended up getting made and got better.
It was just one of them deals where it wasn’t the best scenario and it was really rough every single race I was there. Rather than fight for last and second to last, it was probably better not to be running. Nothing against those guys. It was an opportunity to be on the track, and you’ve got to be appreciative of any opportunity you get, but it was not going to benefit my career much by staying there.
Albino: How did that opportunity come about Gaunt Brothers Racing?
Earnhardt: Originally, we did the two races with Premium [Motorsports] with Nine Line Apparel and they brought in some of their partners, one of them being Xtreme Concepts and the guys at Xtreme Concepts really took a liking to the sport. I guess they kind of like me, too and decided they wanted to really help me with my career. They’ve been huge in trying to grow my brand, giving me the opportunity to perform at Gaunt Brothers.
This team is such a better place than anywhere I’ve been in the Cup Series so far in my career. It’s exciting for me as a driver to get this opportunity and see the dedication and hard work and all they put in the team and all that we get
Albino: Why do you think Gaunt Brothers has been the most stable place in your Cup career?
Earnhardt: When we sat down, one of Xtreme’s [Concepts] requests was to be involved in a Toyota team. When we stopped and starting thinking about everything, I said, ‘damn, the [No.] 96 car only runs a partial schedule, I don’t know what they have sold, but every time they show up, they noticeably look the part, run the part. They covered all the basis that showed the capabilities of going as far as you can possibly imagine going to the top.
When we stopped and thought about it, I was like ‘well, shit, let’s go to the 96. I don’t know what they have available but let’s call them and see what they have.’ They had already sold two races, Bristol and Watkins Glen. We knew those were two that we weren’t going to get, but they had the rest of the season open. It all came together really quick and the guys worked their asses off to make the deal happen and have cars ready. There’s a lot of benefits of being involved with Gaunt Brothers that is only going to help me as a driver and help us as a team to grow, and eventually hopefully being a team contending for wins.
Albino: With Furniture Row Racing shutting down at the end of the year, BK Racing being bought, how do you think Gaunt Brothers Racing is positioned with Toyota?
Earnhardt: I’m not 100 percent sure. I don’t know all the details behind that and what that whole deal entailed. Obviously, they [Furniture Row Racing] got a lot of support from Gibbs and Toyota, and it does open a spot for a Toyota team if they wanted to continue having a really good performing Toyota team. It’s kind of up in the air and deciding on what they want to do.
Our main goal is to focus on the rest of the year, putting together good runs. If we prove ourselves, I think that’s something — if we can financially support it — they would be willing to back. It helps with Marty’s [Gaunt, team owner] partnership with Toyota if we ever to consider something like that. It’s a tough sport and a tough business. It’s constantly changing every year, and there’s a big shakeup in the garage even this year with drivers going all over the place. As a driver, it does concern you, but at the same time I have good people around me and that keeps me in high spirits for next year.
Albino: What is the potential with Gaunt Brother Racing?
Earnhardt: The potential is as far as we can financially take it. In this sport, it’s all about money and having the finances to support those alliances like Furniture Row Racing. You look at what the Gibbs alliance did for them and where it took them. Good partners behind you are a huge asset in making the whole program continue to grow.
You also have to have people who know how to run a team and know how to make stuff better. That’s what I saw every time they were at the track. I would see their professionalism. You walk down the back half of the garage and you see some of the teams next to us and then you look at them, and we stand out because they look the part and act professional with everything we do. From a driver’s standpoint, to see that, it tells you that they are not just looking the part, they are looking the part because they are the part. They have the capabilities of actually going to being a front running team.
Albino: What does the team consider a successful day with the budget it works with?
Earnhardt: It’s a good day if we can finish 25th to 28th. We think we’re capable of racing around the Front Row cars, the No. 32 car, but we’re still learning each other. It takes time. I feel like we’re all clicking together and everybody stands everyone pretty well, but it’s still a learning process. You look at some of the guys and they’ve been working together a long time. It’s going to be a little bit of a process, but I think a good day is in the area of 28th.
Albino: How hard is it to progress your career running for smaller teams in the Cup Series?
Earnhardt: With a team like this, I don’t think it’s very hard. With past teams, it’s hard because you’ve got to have people who have good connections and are well-respected within the sport. With Marty’s connections and relationships with Toyota, that’s huge. It goes so far because when you get Toyota behind you, they are willing to go to bat for you and say ‘hey, look this is what we’re trying to do.’ They’ll go to a team like Gibbs and say we want to get behind these guys because they’ve shown they can meet the potential of the equipment. That’s huge.
I haven’t been with a team that’s had that kind of support or relationships with manufacturers. I’ve driven Chevrolets, and everyone is like ‘oh, Earnhardt’s have always driven Chevrolets.’ Well, Chevrolet didn’t really give a shit. Ford was OK, but it wasn’t great. Now, I’ve got Toyota and they are like ‘when’s he want to go to the simulator? I’m like ‘what, you’re going to let me on the simulator?’ I’ve been banging at the door begging for the Chevrolet simulator and Ford simulator and no one was answering.
Albino: How challenging is it being an Earnhardt in NASCAR?
Earnhardt: I wouldn’t say it’s hard. It has its benefits and negatives, but obviously, people expect more. I know how this rodeo works. You’re not the best because of your last name, you’re the best because you put in the time and the effort and hone your skills better than everyone else.
It does help whenever it comes to finding sponsors. It catches their eye when you mention the Earnhardt name. There are so many people that couldn’t tell you the first thing about racing, but you say Earnhardt and they know the name. The last name does help on that side, but people expect a lot more out of you, too. The people within the garage they understand, but people on the outside, they don’t.
Albino: Do you feel like you’ve earned your way here?
Earnhardt: Yeah, I haven’t been given it. People think I have, and it makes me want to punch them in the face when they say it. Fans, in general, automatically assume because of my last name that I’ve been given opportunities. I’m not sitting here begging my uncle [Dale Earnhardt Jr.] for a ride. Everyone asks me why I don’t drive for him. It takes money. That’s my answer. It takes money to come out here and run on the track. I’m not asking for a free ride, that’s not me.
My family hasn’t helped me out with any of this my entire career. It’s been me and the team I’ve surrounded myself with at JEI and good partners that have come in with Xtreme Concepts. I’ve had great partners over the years. They’ve given me the opportunity to be here and compete and keep racing every year. It’s hard work and hasn’t been given to me. I feel like I’ve earned what I’ve got. I know the time and hard work I’ve put in to get where I’m at now.
Albino: Do you feel like you belong in the Cup Series?
Earnhardt: I don’t feel like I’m doing terrible out there, so I believe so. It’s just how the opportunity presents itself. I ran the full season at JD Motorsports  and then I went Cup racing. People think I should spend more time in XFINITY. I’ll drive whatever, I don’t give a shit. I’m a racecar driver. I want to be competitive and win races. It’s not like I’m dog shit out here every weekend. If I was just riding around in the back f—ing writing country music or something, I would say I probably don’t belong here, but I don’t think that’s the case.
Albino: When you don’t get the results running for smaller teams, does it make you question your ability?
Earnhardt: It makes you wonder, for sure. One of the benefits has been being able to get on the simulator and compare my times to other drivers who are running up front and see where I stack up. That’s been a big courage booster and has really helped me realize ‘hey, it’s not you, it’s the situation we’re in.’
It’s kind of like when Dale Jr. gave me the opportunity to drive his XFINITY car at Richmond several years back. We raced around seventh to 10th the entire night. I remember driving by Austin Dillon and was like ‘I just passed Austin Dillon.’ Normally, I was driving for Go Green Racing that year and getting lapped by those guys. Here I am passing them for position. To sit here and say that I’m not capable of being a front-running driver I think is kind of bullshit but people have their own opinions.
Albino: How do you prove to team owners and sponsors that you can run up front when you’re racing for teams with a lesser budget?
Earnhardt: It’s tough because you’re only as good as your equipment and the situation that you’re in. You might out-perform it a little bit, but you’re not going to out-perform it a lot. There’s a reason these teams are spending a half-million to a million dollars per race. They are spending it because that’s what it takes to go fast and be good.
At some point, everyone has to open their eyes and say it’s just the situation we’re in and we’re making the best out of it. The expectations aren’t stupid high here. I feel like I’m harder on myself than everyone. I beat myself up all the time but that’s what drives me to wanting to be better. If I don’t push myself, no one else is going to push me. They may push me a little bit, but when they are saying ‘I think we’re alright.’ I’m saying, ‘no, we need to be better.’ That’s what fuels me and pushes me to be better.
These guys don’t have stupid high expectations. They know we’re not a top 15 car, but they think we’re capable of running with those Front Row cars. I know they are spending more money than we are. I think it’s just a good situation, a good spot, and I’m just excited to finish out the year with these guys and hopefully many more races in the future.