Since Jeffrey Earnhardt‘s NASCAR career began in 2009, he’s driven low-budget equipment. That’s not the case this year, and he knows it.
In mid-November, Earnhardt announced he and sponsors Xtreme Concepts and iK9 would join Joe Gibbs Racing for nine Xfinity Series races driving the No. 18 ride – the same one Kyle Busch has dominated in.
Over the past handful of years, plenty of drivers have bet on themselves, went to Joe Gibbs Racing for a few Xfinity races and won. Ryan Preece did it twice. In 2014, Sam Hornish Jr. went to JGR and won in what was his only opportunity that season.
But Earnhardt’s a tad different. For years, Earnhardt was getting flack — especially from other drivers dissing his ability inside the car. He’s hoping to lay those criticisms to rest this year.
“They [drivers] don’t have as much respect for the smaller team guys,” Earnhardt told Frontstretch. “They just look at us as if we’re in the way. Luckily, this year I don’t have to worry about that.
“I’ve had to drive stuff that wasn’t that great, and I’ve learned how to make the best of it. Now, I’m getting in something that’s going to drive great, so I really hope I can make the most out of this. If anything, I think I have an upper hand from all the years of struggling to drive stuff that wasn’t so great.”
Heading into 2019, Earnhardt had 151 career starts in the top three national touring series, posting just one top-10 finish, coming in 2012 in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series season opener. The past four years he focused on running in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series with little success.
Moving to the Xfinity Series as part of the JGR juggernaut will likely make Earnhardt one of the race favorites each time he gets in the car. That makes him damn excited.
“I feel like these are probably the first races thinking, ‘Hell, I’ve got every opportunity in the world to win it,'” he said. “It’s nice. It’s real nice. There’s still stress and a lot you think about, but it’s not the same stress.
“It’s thinking about what you’re going to do that late-race restart, what are you going to do at the end of that and you’re sitting on the front row. That’s the kind of things you think about now, rather than before when it was, ‘Where am I going to hide out until the end of the race and put myself in a position for a good finish. By good finish, I mean a freaking top 15.”
By moving to JGR, expectations are high. Hell, fellow JGR driver Christopher Bell is coming off a season in which he recorded a rookie-record seven victories. However, Earnhardt doesn’t believe moving to a big team adds any internal pressure, rather a pressure he’s excited for.
“I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t pressure, but it’s good pressure,” Earnhardt said. “It’s the kind of pressure that I’ve been looking for my whole career and that’s getting an opportunity to get in a good car and go win.
“If I doubted myself, I wouldn’t have any right of being in this garage. I’m looking at it as an opportunity to go win races, and I think that’s what we’re going to do. If you don’t have a positive attitude, you’re definitely not going to win any races.”
Last season, the No. 18 car won a pair of races, finishing the season with 25 top-10 finishes split between eight drivers.
Earnhardt wants to add to those stats this season. Deep down, he believes he can lead laps and win races. Now, he wants to prove that to everyone else.
“I know what I’m capable of. I know I can go win races in good equipment,” Earnhardt said. “I haven’t gotten the opportunity to prove that, and now I do. I’m going to win some races. I don’t think I need to prove anything to anyone, but I guess make them feel a little better about me as a driver.”
Earnhardt led more laps in the season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway (29) than in his previous 151 races combined (9). This past weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway, he drove the No. 18 car to a career-best sixth-place finish. After two races, he’s tied with Cole Custer and Austin Cindric for fifth in points.
Moving forward, Earnhardt’s goal remains the same: win.
“The way I’m looking at this is going out and fighting for wins every weekend [is a success],” Earnhardt said. “Running up front, being smart, racing smart races and being that guy that puts yourself in the right position and relays good information to the crew chief to help him keep the car underneath me all weekend long. That’s going to be success. I think if I do all the stuff behind what it takes to win races, we’ll win races.
“I’m not going to sit here and say we’ll be happy finishing second, but if I was coming here not expecting to win all the races, I shouldn’t be in this garage.”
Earnhardt won’t be in the No. 18 again until April 27 at Talladega Superspeedway. He will, however, return to the Xfinity Series on March 30 at Texas Motor Speedway with newly-formed team Xtreme Concepts Racing in the No. 81 Toyota. The team will run a handful of Xfinity and a pair of Cup races this season.
- There are 38 drivers on the preliminary entry list for this weekends Boyd Gaming 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Cup Series regulars Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon will be pulling double duty.
- Young JR Motorsports prospect Zane Smith will make his series debut this weekend driving the No. 8 Chevrolet. He finished runner-up in the ARCA championship last season, winning four races.
- Brandon Jones enters Sin City on a streak of back-to-back top-five finishes for the first time in his career. Currently, the No. 19 team sits second in points.