Dale Earnhardt Jr. has a simple philosophy about the responsibility that he and Kelley Earnhardt Miller have as co-owners of JR Motorsports: “Put a good race car on the track and put it in the driver’s hands.”
“When you hire a driver, you believe in that driver no matter what the outside perception is, what his background is,” Earnhardt told RACER earlier this week while promoting a new Nicorette Coated Ice Mint Lozenge campaign. “When you hire that guy, you believe in him 100 percent and your thought is, if you give him the car and you put the right people around him, he can succeed.
“There (are) times when the driver’s going to make mistakes – I’ve been a driver, I’ve made mistakes – but it’s not a great feeling as an owner when you know that you didn’t give that guy the best car. When you know you didn’t give him the best people or put him in an environment where he can succeed, that’s a terrible feeling as an owner. It’s the same feeling when you fail as a driver and wreck the car or do something like that.”
With all four JRM cars running well as the Xfinity Series returns to action at Charlotte Motor Speedway, it’s been mission accomplished. JRM’s three full-time drivers all are inside the top 10 in points, with Justin Allgaier leading the way in fifth. Rookie Noah Gragson (above left) is ninth and Michael Annett (above right), who has been to victory lane, 10th. The three have a combined 14 top-10 finishes.
The fourth car, the No. 8 Chevrolet, has been just as successful with seven top-10 finishes in 10 races in the hands of a multitude of drivers. Two of those, Jeb Burton and Ryan Truex, have so far only run one race each, but both have expressed sincere emotion and appreciation for being able to showcase themselves in good equipment.
Truex was the runner-up at ISM Raceway. Burton was fifth a few weeks later in Texas and burst into tears when talking to radio afterward about the day and his journey. He’s back in the car for the Alsco 300 (Saturday, 1 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1).
“I’ve had some great conversations and good interactions with those two guys,” said Earnhardt. “They’re doing such a great job — I think because of their past experiences, whether good or bad. They have driven race cars for a while. They’ve been through the ups and downs of that process, and they’re not coming into our program completely drained. We have drivers like Noah and Zane [Smith, who also shares the No. 8] that don’t have a ton of experience in Xfinity cars, that have to go through the struggles that every single driver does; and we’ll go through those growing pains with those guys as they continue to progress.
“But Jeb and Ryan came in having already gone through those, and so we got kind of lucky to get an opportunity to pair with guys like that. They can hop in those cars and we see really more where our cars are instead of where the drivers are … and yeah, they’re very thankful.”
Burton ran a full season most recently in 2015 with BK Racing at the Cup level, and his other Cup Series starts have come with similar underfunded teams. His Xfinity career has been a similar story, while in Trucks, he was looking good competing for Steve Turner but lost that competitive ride when his sponsor defaulted.
“Jeb is extremely passionate about trying to get himself rooted into the sport and get a real proper ride, and I like being a part of that process,” said Earnhardt. “If we can be the launching pad or even be the program that eventually gets that ride for him, that’ll be great because Jeb’s got a great background, a great racing family, and he’s a good, good person.”
Truex has made a career competing for teams on both the front and back side of the NASCAR garage. He landed an opportunity with JRM after not returning to Kaulig Racing, with which he ran his first full Xfinity season last year. After his ISM run, Truex said he was “thankful” to JRM, and “it was nice to be back up front.”
“Ryan’s the same way — good guy, very funny, very marketable, great content on social media,” said Earnhardt. “He’s got a lot of great things going for him, away from the race car as well. If we can find a way to put together a program that works for him full-time, I would love to do that. I’d love to have Ryan in our company running full-time.”
Now more than a year removed from being a full-time driver himself, Earnhardt’s view on the sport and engagement with JRM as an owner has changed.
“When you’re driving, you have different opinions on what you think the sport needs to be better or healthy, the direction the competition is going,” he said. “When I got out of the car, all those opinions changed, and I couldn’t control it. They changed without any effort.
“I’m less affected by single performances. I don’t get up and down on what happened that day. Obviously, it’s great to win, but I’m more focused on the journey or the season-ending goal than what we’re doing in this practice or this race. When I was driving and owning, it was about that race, that trophy, that win, that day. [Now] it’s, ‘Hey, we’re seeing progress, we’re seeing things go the right way, we’re seeing things go the wrong way. What can we do to adjust? Are we where we need to be today for the playoffs? Are we doing what we need to do to be better when it counts and trying to win that championship year after year after year?’”