Race Weekend Central

Jeffrey Earnhardt Reflects on RCR Talladega Race, Feels at Home at Sam Hunt

Jeffrey Earnhardt has been a bit of a journeyman throughout his 14 years in NASCAR, but he’s finally found himself in one of the best situations of his career. 

After running the past two seasons essentially full-time in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for JD Motorsports, Earnhardt ran less races this year but in more competitive equipment. He just completed what’s supposed to be his last of nine starts with Sam Hunt Racing, which is in its second full-time season as an NXS team. He scored six top 20s with a best finish of seventh at Nashville Superspeedway.

But Earnhardt’s most attention-grabbing run of the year came at Talladega Superspeedway in the spring, when he drove the No. 3 — the number his grandfather Dale Earnhardt made famous — in a one-off for Richard Childress Racing. The fourth-generation driver finished a career-best second after winning his first career pole.

Earnhardt returns to Talladega this weekend, but this time he’ll be driving Emerling-Gase Motorsports’ No. 35 for the second time this season. 

Frontstretch caught up with Earnhardt prior to his race at Bristol Motor Speedway to discuss how he got with Sam Hunt and ForeverLawn, what the young team has been like, his future and what the No. 3 means to him. 

Michael Massie, Frontstretch: This year, you’ve cut back on the total number of races you’re running, but you’re running in more competitive equipment. Is it more fun? What’s it like those weeks you have to sit out?

Jeffrey Earnhardt: It sucks sitting at home, man. I’d race every day of the week if I could. But to be able to come to a higher-caliber team and be able to come out here and race competitively every week, it is nice and it gives you more confidence as a driver when you’re on the track.

It shows people with given the right equipment, you can go run up front. It’s just a good atmosphere to be around this group of guys. They’re incredible to work with. I believe in them 110% and know that every time we come to the track, they’re giving me their all. And I’m gonna do the same back to them. It’s definitely a nice change.

Massie: Earlier in the year, you kind of stole the show at Talladega, that second-place run, career day. I think a lot of people were wanting to see you back in that car for Daytona and fall Talladega. Were there any talks to try to make more runs in that No. 3 car happen?

Earnhardt: We had talked about it. They had a lot going on, obviously, especially here more recent with the announcement of Kyle [Busch] going over there and everything. It was nice, obviously. To get to drive the No. 3 at Richard Childress Racing was a dream of mine to get the opportunity to do. We did it and were one spot away from making it all you could ever dream of, but it was still an incredible experience.

Man, to be honest, I’ve had so much fun driving with this team here, Sam Hunt Racing. They believe in me, and I believe in them. It’s been like a family. They’ve been pretty special to get to work with, and I’m hoping to be able to make this a partnership for a long time to go, many years to come.

As we all know, it takes dollar signs and sponsorships to make it all work. That’s how you get to come to the racetrack with fast cars, you spend more money. These guys do incredible work with what they’ve got and bring good stuff to the track every week. It’s been nice, and hopefully, we can do that a lot more in the future.

But the No. 3 car, obviously, that was a pretty cool experience.

Massie: You were talking about Kyle Busch. There were some people talking about him maybe going to drive the No. 3 in Cup. Obviously, that’s not going to happen. But what would your thoughts have been if that had happened?

Earnhardt: I personally would like to only see it driven by, obviously, one of the grandkids or someone in the Earnhardt family. But Kyle is an incredible driver. So many times, I hear people bash Kyle Busch and what he does on the track and everything. But I have a ton of respect for the guy and his talents and his capabilities of taking the car and doing stuff that most wouldn’t have ever thought could be done.

He’s definitely one of the guys that’s really stood out in our sport since my grandpa passed, as far as just that gritty, aggressive, impressive driver has been Kyle Busch. I hope he does great things over there. Being at Gibbs for so many years and doing all that he’s accomplished there’s been something that I think everyone’s impressed about. He’s got 224 wins in NASCAR or whatever, something crazy. It’s like, I think I’ve got maybe 200 and a couple starts in NASCAR. It’s like if he won every race that I’ve ever ran.

It wouldn’t be the end of the world, but I’d rather it [No. 3] stay either in Richard’s [Childress] family with the grandkids or someone in the Earnhardt family, just for sentimental reasons.

Massie: Dale Earnhardt Jr. was saying the other day that he wanted to see them retire that stylized font and use a new font for the No. 3 if it would be somebody else. 

Earnhardt: If they did that, I’d be fine in my books. My grandpa took that No. 3 and made it what it was. If they changed the style, then it’s a completely different No. 3, in my opinion. I agree with that comment.

Massie: You had a brief spell at JGR. How is Sam Hunt Racing different from JGR?

Earnhardt: More of a family here. Still, everyone on this team wants to go out here and win races and feels like we’re all capable of it. Obviously, we get the support from Toyota, which is incredible for a small team like this. You see what Sam’s been able to do in such a short period of time. It’s not easy to create that relationship with Toyota, and he’s been able to do it. It says a lot about what Toyota thinks about him and his beliefs and Toyota as a manufacturer in our sport.

I’ve said it a million times: Toyota, even when they didn’t have to help me, has helped me, with sim time when I drove for Marty Gaunt in the Cup car and just always been a great manufacturer to drive for. I’ve driven for all three of them, and Toyota has by far surpassed the other two in support and relationships and what they’ve done for my career.

This team [SHR] has that home feel, you got the support from your big manufacturer Toyota and then you got competitive racecars. JGR’s such a big pond, and I’m just a little fish there. Well here, we’re all the same size in this small pond. It’s been really nice to work with these guys. It’s been a little different having a boss that’s younger than me, but Sam has been incredible to work with. Allen [Hart], the crew chief, has been awesome. All the guys on the team have just been a lot of fun, and it’s been a big enjoyment for me to be able to come out here and race with these guys.

Massie: When that whole iK9 deal fell apart, did you think you would ever get another opportunity like this in competitive equipment?

Earnhardt: I like to hope so. That’s what I shoot for pretty much every day I wake up, is finding the sponsorships to be able to come out here and compete in a competitive car. When we all sat down and we were talking about what our plans were gonna be for this year, I saw the progression that Sam was making and what he did in such a short period of time, and I was like, ‘Man, I think we need to consider going to drive for this team. They’re fast.’

I mean, last year, they were working their butts off just to get a car to the track, but they would show up with a nice looking car, nice crew. I mean they fit the part. They showed up and fit the part, they ran the part. And I was like, ‘Man, this is who we need to look at driving for.’

I’m very thankful it all worked out where, even though I’m only running a handful of races this year, it’s been a big enjoyment. And like I said, it’s good when you’re running competitive. It’s a nice confidence booster as a driver. People don’t talk about you when you run in the back. When you’re running up front, you get talked about. It makes it easier to sell sponsorships when you’re being talked about.

Massie: Which is the perfect transition, how’d you get connected with the ForeverLawn guys?

Earnhardt: When [COVID-19] was going on, we were working with a company that did like sanitation stuff. And we thought maybe like, you know, college football teams can’t go back to play football. […] Then we thought maybe with the turf, like there could be a way that this sanitation company could sanitize the turf, and it made it safer for the football players to get back to play or whatever. And then a friend that was working on that deal knew the people at ForeverLawn and started that relationship and asked if they would want to sponsor a racecar.

They had no interest in sponsoring a racecar and [we] kept on and kept on and we said, ‘Alright, well let us come up and give you a pitch and then make your decision from there. We went up and pitched them, and they’re like, ‘Alright, let’s do three races.’

So they did a three-race deal, and they got the bug. The first race [they sponsored was Las] Vegas, but no fans were allowed at Vegas, so they came to Kansas and just really, really enjoyed themselves. That led to many more races the next year. … And then now again this year, they said, ‘Alright, well, we want to go run competitive. What’s that gonna take?’ And I said, ‘Well, Sam Hunt Racing is the real deal. He’s proven it time and time again.’

This sport’s tough. And I was like, man, he’s a young guy, he’s trying to do something that’s really, really difficult and hard to do. And I wasn’t sure how it was gonna work out, and then obviously he proved me wrong. And he’s got the same attitude of never quit. He wants to be a successful race team owner, and in my opinion, he already is, but his goals are to continue to grow and be bigger. So I’m glad that we landed our ForeverLawn sponsorship here.

Massie: And you said you’re working to try to come back here next year, in future years and stuff. You’re trying to make this a long-term commitment with this team?

Earnhardt: Yeah, I mean, we sat there and we threw around a bunch of ideas for next year. These guys make this feel like home and believe in me. That’s a big part of being successful on the racetrack is the chemistry between the team and the driver, crew chief. Every bit of that, I get here.

So our goal is to try and figure out how to make this work and find the sponsorships to make it work. Like I said, it’s not cheap to go out here and be a competitive race team. I’ve been in this sport for a long, long time, and I understand that completely. So I definitely respect what Sam is trying to do and trying to achieve, and I know it takes a lot of money to make that happen. Now, we’ve just gotta go out there and find it to be able to put together a full season.

But yeah, I would hope to be able to continue our relationship here at Sam Hunt Racing and hopefully race for many, many years to come with these guys, because I really enjoy being here.

About the author

Michael Massie is a writer for Frontstretch. Massie, a Richmond, Va. native, has been a NASCAR superfan since childhood, when he frequented races at Richmond International Raceway. Massie is a lover of short track racing and travels around to the ones in his region. Outside of motorsports, the Virginia Tech grad can be seen cheering on his beloved Hokies.

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kb

Good for him.

Johnny Cuda

Good interview Michael!

johndawgchapman

What’s not to like? Both Sam Hunt Racing, & JE, are people I follow, & wish the best for. Nice to see them come together.

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