It should come as no surprise that racing has been much more enjoyable for Jeffrey Earnhardt lately.
The 29-year-old is running a part-time Xfinity Series schedule this season with most of his races behind the wheel of a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. Further explanation on why that matters shouldn’t be needed. Another handful of races for Earnhardt are in an alliance car of Gibbs, the newly formed Xtreme Concepts Racing.
“It’s been busier, which is a good thing,” Earnhardt tells RACER of life these days. “Obviously, we want to capitalize on everything we’ve got going right now, and that means being exposed and doing more appearances and all that stuff. But man, everyone asks me what’s the difference from years past and the difference is I’m having the time of my life. I’m living every race car driver’s dream getting the opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs — man just got voted into the Hall of Fame for a reason.”
One small thing you can’t help but notice when talking to Earnhardt this year — he’s going to mention often what has yet to happen.
“I mean, we still haven’t got that win yet, and I want to win races and I know we’re capable of it,” Earnhardt says. “I’m probably my worst critic, but it’s been an amazing year so far. To come out and run the way we have I think has surprised a lot of people. We’re in some of the best equipment ever and got some great people behind us … all Joe Gibbs Racing is doing to better me as a driver. TRD, they’ve given me a ton of support. That’s the whole reason behind the decision we made to come here over anywhere.
In five starts (four with Gibbs, one with Xtreme), Earnhardt has an average finish of 11.6 with three top-10 finishes. The blemishes are a wreck at Talladega and a 15th at Daytona after leading 29 laps. And because of the equipment he’s now in, Earnhardt admits the bad days are harder to stomach.
“You just want to win,” he said. “Like I said, I’m my biggest critic. It’s just that hunger of wanting to get those wins because you can. You know the equipment is capable, you’re capable — it’s putting it all together. The bad days most guys wouldn’t consider bad, but when you know what you have you want nothing less than to win races.”
Earnhardt just talking about winning races is something new. Not until this year had he ever entered a NASCAR national series track and thought that way but, aside from a lone 2013 start for JR Motorsports, it’s because Earnhardt never sat in anything that had a legitimate shot of pulling into victory lane.
“It’s a lot different,” says Earnhardt. “You go from a good day finishing 20th to 25th to now it’s like, if you’re not in the top five you feel like you just let everyone down. We’ve shown a lot of strength at every track we’ve gone to … I think we’ve definitely done very well, but still want to get that win. Still very hungry. I think that’s where the new attitude is. It’s just a different mentality, a different way of approaching your race weekend.
“And the work that goes into preparing for race weekend is even done different when you’re involved in a big organization like Joe Gibbs Racing. A lot of prep time, a lot of studying notes, watching old races, stuff like that that no one really pushed me to do in the past. It’s cool and it’s exciting.”
Earnhardt’s career is still relatively young. Coming into 2019 he’d made a combined 152 starts across the three national series. Until Saturday afternoon at Charlotte Motor Speedway when he pulled off a gutsy performance after spinning early and dealing with high temperatures, Earnhardt didn’t know what it felt like to finish inside the top five. A third-place effort is now Earnhardt’s career-best finish.
A driver can be as good as those he is surrounded by, and Earnhardt not only believes that but knows he has some of the best in the business to lean on. Not only in the personnel that works for JGR, but in teammates like Christopher Bell, who has proven he can win in anything, Brandon Jones, and even champion Kyle Busch.
“I’m probably growing faster than I ever have because of the resources given to me,” Earnhardt says. “But I feel like even if you were to ask my grandfather [the late Dale Earnhardt Sr.], he would probably tell you he learned every single lap he was in a race car. You’re always learning something, picking up on different things and just bettering yourself by getting more and more seat time.
“Definitely feel like I’m learning a lot this year and have a lot to take in, and it’s been good.”
Five races already in the books, Earnhardt is scheduled for nine more split between his two teams. And even though Earnhardt has expressed how incredible things have already been, he’s not yet comfortable saying he has proven himself.
“We’ve got to win races,” Earnhardt says. “I feel like people are seeing I’m not just a 20th-place driver, but I want to win races, and that was my goal coming into this. I feel like if we go out and win some races, then we’ll really cause a shakeup.”