She’s the big sister who’s now the big boss.
Kelley Earnhardt Miller sits at the top of the organizational pyramid of JR Motorsports, one of NASCAR’s spotlighted operations. As chief executive officer of the web of companies owned or partially owned by retired driver and auto racing guru Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kelley has her hands in virtually everything Junior-related. And that’s a lot.
And it seems it has been this way most of forever.
Earnhardt Miller has been beside her famous brother for most of their lives. They watched television together in a house that later burned. They marched together at military school. They experienced the anguish of losing their father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., in a very public tragedy, and they were together in the struggle to piece together their futures after conflict with their stepmother.
Now, with the siblings owning an Xfinity Series team that draws almost as much attention as leading Cup Series organizations, Earnhardt Miller is front and center, turning the wheels that make JR Motorsports – and Junior’s other enterprises – go.
In September she was named chief executive officer over Junior’s companies, which include the race team, DEJ Management (brand marketing and business) and Dirty Mo Media (multi-media and digital content platform).
It’s not easy being Junior. Earnhardt Miller irons out the rough spots, as she has since both were teenagers.
Now she is 50 and Earnhardt Jr. is 48. Their lives have been laced with success and sorrow, and they still aim high. It’s likely that the vast majority of Dale Jr. fans – and there are millions – long for the day when the team will move up to Cup racing, where Junior and his father made their names. The team wants that, too, and soon, Earnhardt Miller says, but the dollars must make sense.
“We’re constantly talking about it,” she told NBC Sports. “Obviously, there’s a lot to learn about what it means to go Cup racing, especially under the charter situation. The charter and the new car are supposed to change the dynamics on the costs, but I think the jury is still out on that. We’re still working through all that.”
Garage-area estimates put the cost of a Cup charter, which provides a starting spot in all Cup point races, at between $20 million and $30 million, and that’s before adding personnel and equipment to make the move. The costs and many other issues, including one that might be surprising, must be addressed, Earnhardt Miller said.
“I’m 50,” she said. “I don’t want to do this forever. It’s a big investment to figure out how you make that work over the long haul. Do our families want to remain in racing? Do our kids want to take this on? Am I going to be 70 and doing this?
“I think people forget about this. It sounds great to go Cup racing, but there’s a life cycle you’re trying to fit into. I want to relax at some point in my life. I want to have grandkids and go to the cabin and do stuff like that.”
So to make Cup racing work in the context of Earnhardt Miller and Earnhardt Jr. enjoying the fruits of their labor, the calendar would seem to force them to make a move sooner rather than later. The earliest, she said, would be 2024.
“The main holdup for us is the charter,” she said. “Is one available? What’s the price? Does it make sense? You can’t do certain things, like go after major sponsors, without a charter. And they’re probably only going to go up in price. As far as us trying to get in, the sooner the better.”
Rick Hendrick, who is part owner of JRM, endorses the idea of the team moving up to Cup, a plan which would require him to divest himself from ownership.
“I think long-term they want to be owners in the Cup Series, and I’ll support them any way I can,” Hendrick said. “We’ll have an alliance with them, but I’ll have to divest my interest there, and that’s okay because I think it’s served its purpose in Xfinity races. If they move up into Cup, then I’m ready to step out and help out any way I can.”
Asked why JRM should be in Cup, Hendrick said, “Just because of their name and heritage. I believe that it would be good for the sport to have an Earnhardt owner in the Cup Series.”
Although her brother, as the son of one of racing’s all-time greats, has naturally been a target of fan interest since he raced as a teenager, Earnhardt Miller also has had racing ties for decades. She raced Late Models for several years and was often at race tracks when she wasn’t driving.
While earning a degree at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and in the years after her 1995 graduation, she worked in motorsports marketing.
Dale Earnhardt and his wife, Brenda (the mother of Dale Jr. and Kelley), divorced, and the children moved in with their father when their mother’s house burned. That was the first of many hurdles the Earnhardt kids would face. Dale Sr. was a no-nonsense father, Earnhardt Miller said, and his eventual marriage to Teresa Houston complicated matters within the household.
When Earnhardt Sr. was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500, the family dynamic changed dramatically again. Dale Jr. was two years into his Cup career at that point, and the weight of the world dropped onto his shoulders as he became the focal point of a seemingly ever-expanding national matrix of grief.
Earnhardt’s widow moved into a key leadership role at Dale Earnhardt Inc., Senior’s racing team and Junior’s racing home, and that resulted in a difficult relationship between Teresa and the Earnhardt children. During 2001, Earnhardt Miller began working full-time on her brother’s racing and marketing interests, and it became clear over the next few years that a split between the children and Teresa Earnhardt was likely. The final separation occurred in 2008 as Junior left DEI to drive for Hendrick Motorsports.
Along that rough road, Earnhardt Miller returned to the “big sister” role she had known as a teenager, when she went so far as to voluntarily enroll in military school alongside Dale Jr. after their father decided his son needed more discipline in his life.
“We were never into drugs or alcohol or sneaking out of the house,” Earnhardt Miller said. “It was simply not following the rules. When Dad made the rules, they were the rules. There was a time after he and Teresa got married. We had a new mom, and there were a lot of changes and all these rules.
“I just did what I was supposed to do – kept my room clean, emptied the dishwasher, simple things. You didn’t get, ‘Oh, I’m so proud of you,’ from anybody, but you didn’t get in trouble. Dale was the opposite. He was all over getting in trouble.
“Military school was hard. Dale would tell you he hated it. I don’t remember hating it. I was just kind of the person who did what you were told. I think Dale probably thinks it was good for him, but it really hurt his relationship with Dad.”
There was no grand plan for the brother and sister to be forever linked in the racing world, but that scenario began to come into focus after Earnhardt Sr.’s death.
“It was my dad’s death that put me in place to take the role I did with Dale,” Earnhardt Miller said. “As the big sister, I was always there from the standpoint of our parents getting divorced early and the house fire and losing our mom and losing our dad. I kind of always had the caretaker role through the changes we had. I went off to work in licensing and doing other stuff, but my dad’s death kind of catapulted me into coming to work for Dale six months later and running his business.”
Junior’s personality didn’t push him to be at the forefront of all the changes that would occur. Much of that fell in the lap of the big sister.
“I think of it like I was in survivor mode with all that was thrown my way,” she said. “I did it. I think that different people are wired to handle that. Dale would just turn inward. He didn’t really exhibit that ‘survive and thrive’ mode when we were younger.”
None of the moves was easy as Dale Jr. and Kelley worked through the intricacies of separating themselves from DEI and the world their dad had made.
“I was wanting to figure out what parts and pieces of Dale that we wanted to control while working with the people at DEI,” Earnhardt Miller said. “A lot of the transition was about finding that voice and standing up for Dale and his business and what we were trying to do. We were working alongside people at DEI that everyone knew my dad trusted. They were caught in a unique situation and trying to do what they thought my dad would want done versus maybe how Teresa was wanting things done.
“A lot of different things were happening during that time. It finally got to the point that we had to make the decision to leave.”
Ultimately, that decision built a NASCAR Xfinity Series team that is among stock car racing’s finest and led Dale Earnhardt Jr. on a journey to wealth and prominence.
JRM will have three cars in the Xfinity Series Championship 4 Saturday at Phoenix Raceway (6 p.m. ET on USA Network). Noah Gragson and Josh Berry qualified for the final four at Phoenix with race wins, and Justin Allgaier qualified on points Saturday at Martinsville Speedway. Ty Gibbs is the only non-JRM driver in the Phoenix finale.
Gragson, who is moving up to the Cup Series with the Petty GMS team next year, has been a project for JRM and Earnhardt Miller. Owner of a quirky personality, Gragson has had growing pains on the way to establishing himself as a reliable winner in NASCAR’s No. 2 series, and Earnhardt Miller has been there to continue her “big sister” role for another up-and-coming driver.
“He came in as a teenager and was immature,” Earnhardt Miller said. “He can still be immature. He came into the situation here not real worldly in terms of knowing things about the world and how to live in it and be in it.
“I’ve always been the mother hen person for everybody here, especially when you have 18-year-old drivers. You can’t be anything else. The best thing about Noah is that he’s receptive to learning and growing. He loves attention, but once he starts to trust someone and sees they appreciate him, he really responds. He’s come a long way in terms of understanding what makes this whole show go around — how you show appreciation to people, what does teamwork look like, all those kinds of things.”
She said Gragson’s growth is evident in the team’s record this year — eight wins (no one else has more than six) and a dominant presence on the track virtually every week.
“He gets attention by being silly and funny,” she said. “He’s being himself and having fun. And you see the camaraderie with his team. Their relationship is special — how they have each others’ backs.”
All that may lead to another Xfinity championship.
The racing world waits to see where big sis and little brother go next.