Six years ago, Jeffrey Earnhardt was trying to find himself as a racecar driver, competing full-time for the first time in his NASCAR career for JD Motorsports. Since then, he’s done a great deal of growing up both on and off the racetrack.
To this day, 2014 is Earnhardt’s lone full season in a NASCAR national touring series. Sure, Earnhardt ran 34 Cup Series races in 2017 with Circle Sport Racing with The Motorsports Group, but he didn’t run on the two road course races, disqualifying it from a full season.
Again, this year, Earnhardt finds himself not running the entire 33-race NASCAR Xfinity Series schedule. Originally, he was scheduled for just five events for JDM in his return to the team. But when David Starr left the team due to a lack of funding following NASCAR’s resumption of its season after a 10-week hiatus from the COVID-19 pandemic, Johnny Davis, team owner of JDM, called on the 31-year-old for the remainder of the season.
Plain and simple, Earnhardt was happy to have a ride for the majority of the 2020 season, bringing a small amount of funding to the table through Flexfit.
“Seeing what [JDM] was able to do with Ross [Chastain] a couple of years ago, I thought, as good as Johnny was to me back in 2014, I think that’s the best place to go with the budget that we had and get the most bang for your buck,” Earnhardt recently told Frontstretch. “It was just one thing after another, and five races turned to 12 races, and 12 races turned into [JDM] calling me up asking if I would be alright to run at Darlington, and I said, ‘Hell yeah, that’s this weekend. When do I need to be at the shop?’
“A lot of it was just them believing in me as a driver and thinking that I could come in and run well but also take care of the equipment and not tear stuff up.”
Davis says that Earnhardt was originally hoping to bring enough sponsorship to the table to run a partial schedule with Richard Childress Racing in Xfinity, similar to what he did last season with Joe Gibbs Racing.
But with Earnhardt returning to the team, both parties had to put old feelings to the side. Following the 2014 season, the driver elected to leave JDM and move over to Viva Motorsports with primary driver Jamie Dick. Earnhardt ran in six races for the team that season, as Dick was sidelined early in the year with onset diabetes. Ultimately, Earnhardt was hoping to keep himself available for a potential Cup ride with Go Fas Racing, competing in two races for the team in 2015.
The reunion of sorts makes for a gratified Earnhardt.
“When I left after Johnny gave me that opportunity in 2014, it wasn’t what he wanted,” Earnhardt explained. “But looking back on it now, he understood my position at the time. To have the opportunity, to come back and know that he and the team believe in me enough to throw me in the car when we didn’t know if we were going to have the sponsorship every weekend, it says a lot. That’s just the kind of guy Johnny is. He’s true to his routes and tells you what he feels.”
Davis says he wasn’t upset about Earnhardt leaving but thought the driver would be more mature back then, noting, “He was immature, wrecked cars and drove over his head and did things that he shouldn’t have done in our program after we explained our program to him.”
Since the 2014 season, Earnhardt has been put through the wringer, making 76 starts in Cup for a handful of small-budget teams: Circle Sport, Go Fas, BK Racing, StarCom Racing, Premium Motorsports and Gaunt Brothers Racing. Last year, he competed in one race for upstart XCI Racing, which thus far has been the team’s lone Cup event, placing 22nd at Talladega Superspeedway.
Meanwhile, he competed in six races for Joe Gibbs Racing in Xfinity last season, finishing a career-best third at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Unfortunately for Earnhardt, that deal went away due to a lack of sponsorship, initially lined up for nine races.
And while Earnhardt was “frustrated” with how the deal at JGR shook out, he gained valuable knowledge about what it was like running in top-notch equipment. Similar to Chastain two years ago when he ran in a trio of races for Chip Ganassi Racing before returning, he was able to bring back that experience back to the team – a team that’s proven to overachieve with the budget it competes on.
The driver looks at it as an opportunity to run 29 races (missed the first four pre-pandemic) and get needed seat time.
“Seat time is more valuable than anything,” Earnhardt said. “The opportunity over at Gibbs was obviously a great opportunity, a dream opportunity, really. To get to experience that and work with those guys and that caliber equipment, data and technology that they have available for us as drivers, I feel like I was able to grow more as a driver just because of the information alone.
“I wouldn’t say this would be a step back because I’m getting to compete every weekend, and I’m out here getting more seat time and learning more. But we’re not in the situation the Gibbs guys are where they’ve got all these notes that they can go off of. I wouldn’t say it’s a step back by any means.”
Compared to his first stint with JDM, Earnhardt believes he’s matured, as has Davis. Instead of howling over the radio, the team owner lets the team handle the situation at hand while he’s more of a fan atop the team’s haulers.
“Johnny back in 2014 and Johnny today is a completely different person,” Earnhardt noted. “He says the same about myself. He told me the other day, he’s proud of what I’ve done and told me how it’s nice to see I’ve matured and grown up, taking racing more seriously than I did and making the best out of the opportunity.
“On his side, he’s way more laid back and doesn’t want to rip your head off if you scratch a fender. Johnny used to be a little bit of a fireball, and I think a lot of it was his competitive nature and wanting to do a lot with very little.”
Davis has seen great development in Earnhardt, who he believes is taking being a racecar driver more seriously this time around with the team.
“He’s grown in every type of maturity. He’s not like a kid anymore – he’s a responsible adult now,” Davis said. “He makes good decisions and drives the car to the max and not beyond that. He comes to the shop now, where before he didn’t want to spend time with the crew. He’s just excited to be in this sport, and he’s realized that to make it in this sport ain’t as easy as he thought it was. He needs more than a last name.”
Being a smaller team, JDM, which is four cars deep, can’t afford to spend money on battered equipment. Earnhardt believes six years ago Davis pushed that adage extremely hard, while he’s now being more lenient on his drivers.
“He still doesn’t like when you tear up cars, but he won’t rip your head off if you do,” Earnhardt said.
Davis admits that he’s calmed down a lot. Back in 2014, he was overly hyper, wanting his team to succeed with a minuscule amount of funding.
“In the past, I was a team owner that thought he was a driver that wasn’t a driver and handled it as if I was a driver,” Davis said. “I would get over the radio and say, ‘Wreck that son of a bitch.’ I’ve matured now that I don’t want to do that because I know we’re going to get wrecked too.
“I’ve matured, I’ve calmed down and changed my atmosphere on life.”
In Earnhardt’s first 19 starts this season, he has an average finish of 22.6, nearly four spots better than 2014. His best outing is a 12th-place finish in mid-July at Texas Motor Speedway, earning eight additional top-20 efforts.
Earnhardt believes the team has the capability of improving on its average finish, should the team put a full race together and stay out of trouble, minimizing on his four DNFs.
“It’s never as good as you want it to be,” he said of the 2020 season. “Hell, we could go out here and win every damn race, and I’d probably still want to do better because you can always be better, no matter what. I feel like as long as you’re seeing gains and improvements, that’s when you can say it’s been good.
“We’re having a decent season so far. I’m not happy with it. I want to be better. I want to be in that top 15 every weekend and be there consistently and race there all day long, not just happen to fall into the top 15 because people wrecked out.”
This weekend the series heads to Richmond Raceway, where Earnhardt has a best finish of 17th in four starts at the Virginia short track.
- As noted above, the Xfinity Series takes to Richmond this weekend for its final doubleheader weekend of the season. There are 36 entries for Friday’s Go Bowling 250, with Ross Chastain and Brandon Jones starting on the front row. Kyle Busch, making his final start of the season, will line up 29th in the No. 54 Toyota.
- Saturday’s Virginia is for Racing Lovers 250 also has 36 entries. The only addition is Timmy Hill will be running the No. 66 for MBM Motorsports, as he’s not scheduled for the race on Friday evening.
- Despite getting involved in a lap 2 incident last weekend at Darlington Raceway, Brandon Brown extended his points gap on Jeremy Clements to 45 for the final playoff spot. With three races remaining in the regular season, the No. 68 team is sitting comfortably after the No. 51 team missed a shot at closing the gap.