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Friday 5: Jeffrey Earnhardt ready for challenge of winning Xfinity races

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HUNTERSVILLE, N.C. — Jeffrey Earnhardt sighs and says “too long.”

He rests his head in his hand and stares ahead.

“It’s been too long,” Earnhardt says since he last won a race. “Hell, I can’t remember. That’s pretty sad. It’s been a while.”

A journey that started with racing a Yugo — yes, a Yugo — and later moved from small team to small team in NASCAR, now has its reward more than a decade later.

Earnhardt will drive in nine Xfinity races for Joe Gibbs Racing this season, beginning with the Feb. 16 season opener at Daytona International Speedway. 

The expectations are high — “it’s wins or nothing” he saidbut the pressure can’t compare to what Earnhardt faced to reach this point.

“The pressure to go and get in a car that is capable of winning, that’s the pressure I’ve been looking for my whole life,” he said, wearing a black Joe Gibbs Racing T-shirt in a conference room at the team’s Cup headquarters.

Instead, the pressure has been to survive in the sport. Beginning with the Yugo.

He begged his father for a couple of years to let him race. His dad eventually relented, saying Earnhardt could compete if he found a car and sponsorship to pay for it. Earnhardt got the Yugo and sponsorship for it.

He never won in that car. But he didn’t drive it long.

“I ended up flipping it,” Earnhardt said of a race at Wythe Raceway in Rural Retreat, Virginia. “Because it was so slow. A guy shoved me off in the corner and turned me sideways and another car came and hit the front end of the car … and turned me head-on into the outside wall. Flipped. Landed on its roof.

“I was like, ‘Man, this thing is going to catch on fire.’ I’d seen too many movies. I ended up getting my shoelace hung on the brake pedal and didn’t think I was going to make it out alive. Everyone was like, ‘You’re fine, we’ve got you.’ ”

He thought everything would be fine when he joined Dale Earnhardt Inc. and drove in what is now the K&N Pro Series East Series in 2007-08.

“Signed a four-year contract at 17 years old and thought, this is going to be a walk in the park,” Earnhardt told NBC Sports. “Everything is going to be taken care of.”

But his ride went away after DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing in November 2008. The struggle to find rides began. Earnhardt ran one K&N Pro Series East race and two Xfinity races in 2009. He ran five Truck races in 2010. In 2011, he drove in two Xfinity races and five Truck races.

Earnhardt fought in one MMA bout in 2012 — he won — but realized afterward that he still wanted to race.

“I did the MMA thing to try to find something that gave me that rush that I get in a race car and it still wasn’t the equivalent,” Earnhardt said.

He continued to search for rides.

“What my grandfather did and his legacy means the world to me,” Earnhardt said of the late Dale Earnhardt. “I would hate to not think that I gave literally everything I possibly could to make it continue.”

He’s driven in 151 races in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks but never with a team that could compete for wins. His best Xfinity finish is 12th at Bristol (2014) and Talladega (2015). His best Cup finish is 11th in last July’s Daytona race.

With JGR, top 10s should be common. Earnhardt will drive the No. 18, a car that won twice last year with Ryan Preece at Bristol and Kyle Busch at Pocono and saw Noah Gragson finish second with in his Xfinity debut at Richmond last year.

“I was talking on the phone with my manager and I was like, I’ve gone from the struggle of trying to keep the car under me for the whole entire race and not wreck to now the struggle is going to be those late-race restarts when you’re on the front row,” Earnhardt said. “That’s a new challenge, it’s a good challenge.”

2. Reversal of fortune

What would have happened had NASCAR disqualified cars last year that failed inspection after a race instead of doing it this season?

Two Cup races would have had different winners.

Kyle Busch would have finished the season with a series-high nine wins instead of being tied with Kevin Harvick at eight.

Harvick would have lost his win at Las Vegas after his car was found to have an issue with the rear window during an inspection at NASCAR’s R&D Center. That would have given Busch, the runner-up, the win.

Also, Harvick would have lost his Texas win for an issue with the spoiler — also discovered at the R&D Center. But runner-up Ryan Blaney was penalized because his car failed inspection and the win would have gone to Joey Logano, who finished third in that race.

Nine cars that finished in the top four in a Cup race last year failed inspection after the event and would have been disqualified under this year’s rules.

3. Disqualification penalty appeals

Should a vehicle be disqualified after failing inspection after the race, the team can appeal. They will have to pay a non-refundable appeal filing fee of $5,000.

Unlike a regular appeal, which features a panel of three people, the race disqualification appeal will be heard by one person. It could be one of the 28 people listed in the rule book as appeal panelists or it could be the Final Appeal Officer or their alternate.

One thing to note in this particular type of case is that the decision of that one panelist is final. The decision cannot be appealed to the Final Appeal Officer.

4. Charter transfers

With a new season, comes the transfer of charters in Cup.

Six of the 36 charters have changed teams for this season.

The charter that was with BK Racing’s No. 23 car last year, which Front Row Motorsports purchased, will be with the No. 38 car of David Ragan.

The charter that had been with Ragan’s team goes to teammate Matt Tifft. Front Row Motorsports added a car, growing to a third team this season.

The charter with Richard Petty Motorsport’s No. 43 car with Bubba Wallace goes to Rick Ware Racing and will be aligned with the No. 51 car and driven by B.J. McLeod in the Daytona 500.

The charter that was with Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 car last year goes to RPM’s No. 43 car this season.

Furniture Row Racing’s charter was purchased by Spire Motorsports and be used with the No. 77 car. That will be No. 40 for Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 and then go back to No. 77 the rest of the season. 

The charter that had been with the No. 72 car of TriStar Motorsports moves to the No. 52 car at Rick Ware Racing.

5. Rule changes

NASCAR came out with a bulletin this week that updated its rule book.

Among some of the changes:

— Drivers must have all four tires below the orange box at the commitment line to enter pit road. That had been the case last year at all tracks except Martinsville. Drivers needed to only put two tires under the orange box there. Now, they will have to adjust at Martinsville.

— A pit crew member’s foot must not touch pit road before the vehicle is one pit box away from its assigned pit box or the equivalent marked distance. Should a crew member’s foot or both feet touch the pit road surface too early, the pit crew member can re-establish their position back to or behind the pit wall before servicing the car to avoid a penalty.

— A sixth person can go over the wall during a pit stop but that person’s duties are limited to servicing the driver in their health and well-being, assisting with safety systems, window net, helmet and cooling ventilation hose, radio system replacement, steering wheel wiring, providing personal medical supplies and cleaning the windshield. Such a person, though, is not allowed to help repair the body and/or mechanical components on the car.

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Goodyear tire info for Richmond race weekend

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If Goodyear tires at Richmond Raceway look familiar this weekend, there’s a good reason.

Teams competing in Friday’s Xfinity and Saturday’s Cup races will have the same Goodyear tire compounds as they raced upon in the spring at the 3/4-mile bullring in April.

Richmond is simply one of the more high-wear tracks on the NASCAR circuit,” Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, said in a media release. “What we’ve seen this year with this higher downforce package, with the cars more ‘in the track’ and with less lateral slip, wear is down a bit compared to 2018.

Saying that, tires are still very important at Richmond. The tread compounds we bring do a good job rubbering in the track, creating multiple racing grooves throughout the race.”

As a result, tire management is a significant element for this weekend’s races, “meaning a good amount of passing throughout the field as a run progresses,” according to the Goodyear media release. “Richmond has traditionally lined up with a couple other tracks of similar length – New Hampshire and Phoenix – but its ‘racy’ configuration requires more stagger (difference in height between the shorter left-side tire and the taller right-side tire) be built into the tire set-up.”

NOTES: This is the only track at which Cup or Xfinity teams will run either of these two Goodyear tire codes. … As on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run liners in their tires at Richmond.

Here is the information for this weekend’s tires at Richmond:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Intermediate Radials

Set limits: Cup: Three sets for practice, one set for qualifying and 10 sets for the race (nine race sets plus one set transferred from qualifying or practice); Xfinity: Six sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4874; Right-side — D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,214 mm (87.17 in.); Right-side — 2,244 mm (88.35 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 12 psi; Left Rear – 12 psi; Right Front — 30 psi; Right Rear — 27 psi

Daniel Hemric not returning to Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 car next year

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Daniel Hemric will not return to drive Richard Childress Racing’s No. 8 Chevrolet in 2020, the team announced Tuesday. The team said in a statement it had exercised its option and would release Hemric following this season.

Hemric is in his rookie Cup season and has been with RCR for three years. He competed for the team in the Xfinity Series from 2017-18 before moving to Cup. Hemric has competed in five full-time seasons across Cup, Xfinity and the Truck Series and has yet to visit victory lane.

More: NASCAR schedule, video and more

Through 27 races this year, Hemric has two top-10 finishes – a fifth at Talladega and a seventh at Pocono in July – and an average finish of 22.7.

The move by RCR to release Hemric creates a potential open seat for RCR’s Xfinity series driver Tyler Reddick, who is the defending Xfinity champion. Owner Richard Childress said in July the only way he could keep Reddick was if he moved Reddick up to Cup.

Reddick has five wins this season, including last Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Reddick enters the postseason as the regular-season champion. The postseason begins Friday at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Statements from RCR and Hemric are below.

Joey Gase joins Garrett Smithley to defend self from Kyle Busch criticism

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Joey Gase on Tuesday joined Garrett Smithley to basically tell Kyle Busch to double-check his facts before pointing fingers.

Busch criticized Smithley and Gase for their driving – having made contact with Smithley and was impeded by Gase – late in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas, leaving Busch with an eventual 19th-place finish.

Busch said in an interview on NBCSN: “We’re the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys that have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic, they don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Gase stood up for himself in an extended tweet Tuesday.

Here’s a transcript of that post:

Well someone implied (Sunday) night that I have never won a late model race before. As you can see in the pics below I have won a few in my day and just wanted to share my story a little bit and thank the people who have helped me get to where I am today.

My dad raced before I did at the local short track level and that’s how I fell in love with racing. When I was 4 years old my dad got me my first yard kart and would turn hundreds of laps on the driveway everyday. When I turned 14 my dad retired from racing and I started to race his old open wheel modified and won that year up in Oktoberfest in Lacrosse, WI which anyone in the Midwest knows how big of a weekend that is.

When I was 16 I was the youngest ever to win the track championship in the Late Model division at Hawkeye Downs Speedway racing against some of the best in the Midwest like Johnny Spaw, Tim Plummer, Griffen McGrath, Doughly Fleck, Brad Osborn and the list goes on and this is when my career took off.

This was only made possible because a family friend believed in me and bought my first two late models and the motors to go with it. Our crew consisted of my dad, my uncle, grandpa, and I. My parents were not rich, my dad worked in a coal power plant for 20 plus years and my mom was a hair stylist. It took the effort of my whole family and a lot of people who believed in me to get to where I am today and I can’t thank them enough.

We have accomplished a lot of cool things over the years, my top memories being winning my first race back after my mom’s passing, finishing fifth with Jimmy Means Racing at Talladega after almost missing the race and making my first start in the Daytona 500 and being the highest finishing rookie (23rd).

I have to give HUGE thanks to Jimmy Means for giving me a big chance and making it possible for myself to get established in NASCAR with nearly no funding when we first started and Carl Long for picking me back up after my big sponsor from last year did not stand by their commitments and letting me know in the middle of December.

We have to work for every sponsor we get and I am proud to say I have 30 different sponsors this year and would not be here without them. Also have to thank all of my fans for always standing by me.”

Gase’s tweet follows Smithley’s rebuke of Busch late Monday afternoon, giving his side of the contact with the former Cup champ.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, Kyle Petty and Nate Ryan discussed if Busch was wrong in his criticism.

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Preliminary entry lists for Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend at Richmond Raceway for two of the national series.

The Cup Series holds the second race of its opening round while the Xfinity Series kicks off its postseason.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race.

Cup – Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Quin Houff is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in RWR’s No. 52 Ford and Spencer Boyd is in the team’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the spring race at Richmond over Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch won this race last year over Kevin Harvick and Truex.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Go Bowing 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the fourth time this season.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Hermie Sadler is entered in Ryan Sieg Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It will be his first Xfinity start since this race in 2016.

Joe Graf Jr. is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

There is no driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won at Richmond in the spring over Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier. Christopher Bell won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

Click here for the entry list.

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