Kelley Earnhardt Miller: Big sister, big boss for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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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.

As a teenager, Kelley Earnhardt Miller raced late models with her brothers (JR Motorsports photo)

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.”

Kelley Earnhardt Miller and her husband, L.W. Miller, celebrate Dale Jr.’s 2014 Daytona 500 win (JR Motorsports photo)

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.”

Kelley Earnhardt Miller has helped build JR Motorsports into one of the elite teams in the Xfinity Series. (JR Motorsports photo)

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.

 

 

 

 

NASCAR Awards to air at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Joey Logano didn’t need much time to answer the question.

Who would the two-time Cup champion want to introduce him at the NASCAR Awards?

Racing icon Mario Andretti, Logano immediately said. 

And there was Andretti on the stage at the Music City Center introducing Logano, the 2022 Cup champion. Watch that and the rest of the night’s festivities at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock. You can order Peacock here.

MORE: See the red carpet scene

MORE: Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

NBC Sports’ Marty Snider and Kim Coon co-hosted the show along with Fox Sports’ Kaitlyn Vincie. The Cup, Xfinity and Truck champions were honored. Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, whose father died hours after Gibbs won the Xfinity title last month, received a standing ovation and thanked the industry for its support.

The highlight of the night for Logano was having Andretti on stage to introduce him.

“He’s just been a great role model for me, not only as a racer, but as a person for so long,” Logano said afterward. “I had his picture on my wall. I looked at Mario Andretti before I went to sleep every night as a kid. I thought it was the coolest thing that he signed it to me.”

NASCAR Awards and Champion Celebration
Cup champion Joey Logano on stage with racing icon Mario Andretti during the NASCAR Awards in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Logano and Andretti have gotten to know each other through the years. Logano ran a throwback car that honored Andretti at Darlington Raceway in 2015 and 2021.

But none of that compared to being on stage with Andretti.

“That’s still like a pinch-me moment,” Logano said. “It’s Mario Andretti. He’s the man. The fact that he knows my name I think is really, really cool.”

Catch the NASCAR Awards at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock

Sport shows support for Gibbs family at NASCAR Awards

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The NASCAR community showed its support Thursday at the NASCAR Awards for the Gibbs family, grieving the death of Coy Gibbs on Nov. 6. 

During his interview on stage, car owner Joe Gibbs thanked the NASCAR industry for its support. (The NASCAR Awards show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock).

Coy Gibbs, son of Joe Gibbs and father of Xfinity champion Ty Gibbs, died hours after seeing Ty Gibbs win the series title last month at Phoenix Raceway. Coy Gibbs, 49, was the vice chairman and chief operating officer at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief operating officer, introduced Ty Gibbs at the NASCAR Awards and noted that “everyone gathered tonight is all a part of the NASCAR family, and I know I speak for everyone that the entire NASCAR family is 100% percent behind this young man.”

Ty Gibbs received a standing ovation.

“Thank you,” he told the crowd, “that means a lot.”

Ty Gibbs spoke for less than a minute, thanking his team, sponsors, fans and the NASCAR community.

He closed his speech by saying “And thanks to my family. I love you. I hope everybody has a great offseason. Enjoy it. Thank you for all the support. Thank you for all the claps. I really appreciate it.”

Ty Gibbs spoke to the media earlier Thursday. Asked how he was doing, he said: “I’ve been doing good. Thank you for asking and definitely appreciate you guys. We’ve been doing good, doing a lot of stuff this week. … It’s been fun to experience this stuff.”

Asked about Joe Gibbs addressing the organization after Coy’s death, Ty Gibbs politely said: “For right now, I’m not going to touch on any of that subject at all. I’m just going to stick with all the racing questions and go from there.”

Cup champion Joey Logano said he spent time with 20-year-old Ty Gibbs on Wednesday at the champion’s dinner.

Logano said he told Ty Gibbs that “we’re here for you. You need something reach out.”

Brennan Poole joins Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for 2023

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Brennan Poole will join Bayley Currey at JD Motorsports for the 2023 NASCAR Xfinity season, the team announced Friday.

Poole will drive the No. 6 car for the full season. Currey returns to the team’s No. 4 car for the season. Currey scored five top-15 finishes last season for the organization.

JD Motorsports is planning to run the No. 0 car next season. No driver or sponsor has been announced for that ride.

“We’re full throttle here and getting ready to go,” Davis said in a statement from the team. “Bayley and Brennan are signed on and looking forward to chasing races and points next year. We’re actively moving along looking for sponsor commitments and for drivers and sponsors for the No. 0 car.”

“We’ve always taken the approach here that we want to go after the series with multiple cars, and that’s how we’re looking toward 2023. The new schedule is very interesting and provides new challenges to our drivers and team members.”

The 2023 Xfinity season begins Feb. 18 at Daytona International Speedway.

Friday 5: Will Kyle Busch become NASCAR’s Tom Brady, Peyton Manning?

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The weight of an unfulfilled season, deciding where he’d race in 2023 and the impact on his Truck Series team are off Kyle Busch.

It’s back to racing for the two-time Cup champion, who seeks to reignite his career at Richard Childress Racing this season.

Busch performed his final duty representing Joe Gibbs Racing at Thursday’s NASCAR Awards (show airs at 8 p.m. ET Saturday on Peacock) and it’s now all about helping RCR win its first Cup championship since 1994.

MORE: NASCAR Awards red carpet scene

Busch will be with Richard Childress Racing this weekend at Circuit of the Americas for World Racing League endurance events. Busch said the team has turned an old Cup car into an endurance car for the event. Last year, RCR won an eight-hour endurance race there with Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Kaz Grala.

Busch seeks better fortunes at RCR than what he’s had recently at Joe Gibbs Racing.

He has one Cup win in his last 53 starts — 14 drivers have won more races than Busch in that span, dating back to the July 2021 race at Road America.

His 17 top-10 finishes this past season were his fewest since scoring 16 top 10s in 2015. 

He was running at the finish in 29 of 36 points races — the first time he’s been running at the finish in fewer than 30 races since 2015. Two blown engines in the opening round of the playoffs led to failing to advance to the second round for the first time in his career. 

“It’s obviously been a challenging, not just this year, but the last little while,” Busch said Thursday at the Music City Center. “So, it’s kind of maybe a blessing in disguise, honestly, where it might just be time for a fresh start, time for something new, time for something different.”

He looks to future NFL Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady and Peyton Manning for inspiration.

Brady won six Super Bowls with the New England Patriots before  joining Tampa Bay and winning a Super Bowl in his first season with the Buccaneers.

Manning won a Super Bowl with the Indianapolis Colts before joining the Denver Broncos and winning a Super Bowl there in his final season in the NFL.

“I’m kind of looking at it as a Tom Brady, Peyton Manning aspect where they left great teams, great originations where they won championships and they were able to win a championship somewhere else,” Busch said. “I’d like to think I still have that opportunity to be able to do that at RCR.

“I look at the opportunity with the new Next Gen race car as an easier move to make now with that vs. years past with previous generation cars.”

He says that because with the previous generation of cars, there was a greater separation between teams because NASCAR did not regulate as much of the car. With the the Next Gen car, teams have the same parts. Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano that his team still has much to learn about the car and maximizing setups. 

Even with his struggles at the end of his tenure at Joe Gibbs Racing, Busch says he doesn’t go to RCR with a chip on his shoulder. 

“I don’t think I have anything to prove or I need to have a chip on my shoulder,” Busch said. “I just want to go out there and run well again. … I felt like we had a lot of strong runs this year. There were like six races I can count that we could’ve, would’ve, should’ve won and we didn’t whip is very frustrating. 

“We were so good at giving them away that I need to get back to I’m so good at stealing them and earning them.”

2. Special delivery 

Among the perks with winning a Cup title is getting the Champion’s Journal. Jimmie Johnson started the tradition after his 2010 championship. The existence of the journal remained a secret until 2017 when Johnson posted a picture on social media of him handing the journal to Martin Truex Jr.

The journal passes from champion to champion with the current champion holding on to it for a year and adding an entry for the next champion before handing it to them. Logano will receive the journal from Kyle Larson. 

“I can’t wait to read it again,” Logano said before Thursday’s NASCAR Awards. “I’m telling you, it’s probably one of the coolest things. Jimmie deserves all of the credit for coming up with the idea. 

“I wish it started sooner. It’s so interesting. Some drivers are very detailed what they write to the next champion and some are kind of quick and simple. It’s very interesting to read it. It’s cool. It’s a real secret. It’s kind of like an unwritten rule, you can’t take pictures of it and post it. It’s a thing that only the championship drivers know and have read and seen.

“Every time I get it, I’m so nervous. I’m like don’t spill anything on this thing, don’t lose it. It would suck to be the guy that loses that. That would be bad. I’m putting it right in the safe.”

Logano won his first Cup title in 2018. He then gave the journal to Kyle Busch, the 2019 series champion.

“It’s something you put a lot of thought into, at least I did,” Logano said of what he penned. “I wrote a letter to Kyle. You put a lot of thought into it. It’s something that will be there as long as our sport is around. I hope so at least. It’s a really great tradition.”

3. Fun factor 

The day of last year’s NASCAR Awards, William Byron said he wanted compete in more races outside NASCAR in 2022. 

Byron, who seeks to make Sunday’s prestigious Snowball Derby Super Late Model race, has fulfilled his goal, winning, gaining confidence but also having fun.

“What I got out of it was immediate fun, sort of relief,” Byron said of racing various Super Late Model races this year. “It was not racing the Cup car. It was different. It was not as stressful working with the team and things like that because there’s not as much on the line. There’s still prize money and things, and honestly you’re there to have fun. I enjoyed that.

“As I got going in it, I realized how productive it really was for me to do it, how much I was learning. As I did it more often throughout the season, I learned little nuances that were helping me get back in the Cup car with a better skill set.”

That element of fun stood out to Byron. Cup racing is full of pressure with the multi-million dollar sponsors, expectations to win and all the people at the shop relying on the car’s performance. That’s significant pressure, on top of what any driver puts on themself.

“There’s a lot of guys that you are trying to provide for and do a good job for,” Byron said of Cup racing. “There is a weight to that. You want to perform for those guys that work non-stop at the shop. There’s just a much broader net that you are casting as a driver. Whenever you go to the short track level, it’s you and six to 10 guys working on the car. … There’s natural pressure with what we’re trying to do at the Cup level because it is the No. 1 motorsports in the U.S.”

4. Looking for a ride

Ross Chastain says he’s been “trying for years” to get a ride in the Rolex 24 at Daytona International Speedway without success but that hasn’t deterred him.

“I’ve met with the president of IMSA,” said Chastain, who finished second to Joey Logano for the Cup title this season. “I’ve met with team owners. I’ve talked to drivers. I just can’t find my way in yet. I haven’t found the right person yet to either tell me how to do it or give me the opportunity. I could show up with sponsorship and get a ride, but how do I get in as a race car driver? I haven’t found that spot yet.”

Chastain said he’s reached out to some this offseason with no luck. 

He said the prestige of the season-opening IMSA event (Jan. 28-29, 2023) draws him but he also wants to gain more experience racing on a road course — even with his win at Circuit of the Americas this past season. And Chastain is not picky on the type of ride he’d like to have for that race.

“I’m not even looking to be in the top class. I want to find a mid-pack Xfinity team of the Rolex and go run there and experience it and then just to be around those road racers that do it year around. I know I could learn something. … I just want to race.”

5. Indy 500-Coke 600 double

It has been eight years since Kurt Busch competed in the Indianapolis 500 and Coca-Cola 600 on the same day, the last time the feat has been accomplished. 

Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson are among those who have expressed interest in running both races in the same day but don’t appear to be in a position to do so in 2023 because of the limited IndyCar rides available. 

Roger Penske, owner of the IndyCar Series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, said he could see Jimmie Johnson attempting it this year, and others as soon as next year. 

“It’s about having the car and the manufactures, whether it’s Chevy and or Honda,” Penske said, referring to the IndyCar manufacturers. “All would be interested to see somebody run the double. Maybe Jimmie is going to do it, which would be great. 

“He has the experience. He did very well on the ovals. … It’s my understanding that he’s going to run potentially the 600 as one of his races (with Petty GMS). We’ll see.”