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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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NASCAR Cup car from 1989 ‘found’ in Ireland, still runs strong on original tires and motor

Photo from YouTube video
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We’ve all heard stories of old race cars that were discovered in someone’s barn or garage or similar places. Usually, they’re all rusty or falling apart or are in dire need of a makeover.

But here’s a story you likely haven’t heard before. It turns out the No. 31 1989 Chevrolet Lumina, which competed in four Winston Cup races in 1991 (as the No. 53) and 11 races in 1992 (as the No. 31), was recently “discovered” by guys from the drift racing web site DriftGames.Life (DGL).

But instead of finding it in a barn or well off the beaten path, the DGL team found the car tucked away in a museum at Ireland’s Mondello Park International Race Circuit, near Dublin.

“We were walking down pit lane at Mondello Park and came across probably the most insane thing you’re ever going to see in Ireland, a fully fledged NASCAR,” said DGL’s Dave Egan, who narrates the video below. “We’re going to get our full Cole Trickle on because ‘Days of Thunder’ was (the thing) when I was younger. That was the best film, with Tom Cruise, and this is the car from that era. It’s old-school NASCAR.”

This is no replica or show car. It’s the actual race car — and it’s in great condition (except for a few old tire scuff marks from the usual beatin’ and bangin’ that goes on in Cup racing).

Photo: Reddit.com

Here’s the back story: Irish entrepreneur, former race car driver and former Lola Race Cars owner Martin Birrane wanted to go NASCAR racing in the U.S., so he formed “Team Ireland” in 1991, becoming one of the first foreign owners to field a team in NASCAR’s premier series.

With a chassis built by and purchased from Dale Earnhardt Inc., complete with a Richard Childress Racing motor, the team ran four races in 1991, two with Bobby Hillin Jr. behind the wheel of the No. 53, and two other races with John Paul Jr. in the driver’s seat.

Birrane brought Hillin Jr. back to drive in 1992 in the rechristened No. 31. The car’s best finish with Hillin Jr. behind the wheel was 13th in that year’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Later that same season, the car was disqualified at Charlotte following the Mello Yello 500 (Hillin Jr. finished eighth in the race before the DQ) for using illegal cylinder heads. Because the team could not afford to pay the hefty $50,000 fine levied by NASCAR (one of the highest penalties assessed at the time), as well as being unable to attract additional sponsorship, that ultimately and abruptly ended Team Ireland’s and Birrane’s brief foray into NASCAR.

After the team disbanded, Birrane brought the car back to his homeland. The car was brought back to life recently by the DGL crew, with Irish driver Ian Beatty putting it through its paces at Mondello Park, which Birrane and now his family owns.

Beatty took the car for a spin on, believe it or not, with the same tires that it had after its Charlotte DQ, rubber that is over a quarter-century old.

It’s a handful,” Beatty said of his experience driving the car. “It’s a bit like driving a bus with 850 horsepower. … And of course these tires are 20-30 years old, so there’s no grip on them. It’s a handful, but it’s fun.”

One humorous highlight of the ride came before Beatty took it onto the track – he got stuck trying to climb through the window and couldn’t slide down into the seat because the old-fashioned steering wheel blocked him. The team had to remove the steering wheel and then Beatty was able to get to work.

Birrane passed away last June at the age of 82. Hillin Jr., who now runs an oil company in Houston, fondly recalls his time with Team Ireland.

“Martin was a true gentleman,” Hillin Jr. told NBC Sports. “I liked him a lot. I feel bad that I lost touch with him.

“Martin will be remembered for somebody being a pioneer and coming over here and doing a NASCAR team and investing in NASCAR. … I don’t think the sport really appreciated what he had to offer when he was here, and it’s too bad.

A diecast model of the Team Ireland Chevrolet Lumia (photo courtesy RacingChampions.Blogspot.com).

“I was never able to go to Mondello Park, but I was pretty impressed with him because he really was committed to NASCAR and wanted to make a go of it, to the point where he was flying in from London for all the races, sometimes week to week or once a month. It was kind of too bad the way things turned out.”

Then, Hillin Jr. added: “The biggest thing I remember is people loved the car and the big Irish cloverleaf on it. I don’t know how many of those people were Irish, but they sure loved it.”

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Dale Tales: When Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove Kyle Busch’s car at Texas in 2007

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The history books shows that Dale Earnhardt Jr. first drove for Hendrick Motorsports in 2008 when he began racing the No. 88 Chevrolet.

But Earnhardt’s first time in a Hendrick car actually came in 2007 in a race where he drove both his Dale Earnhardt Inc. No. 8 Chevrolet and Kyle Busch‘s No. 5 Chevrolet.

Earnhardt recalled this odd episode in his career on this week’s “Dale Tales.”

The episode occurred on April 15 at Texas Motor Speedway. It began when Busch rammed into the back of Earnhardt’s car as they navigated through a smokescreen created by Tony Stewart, who had spun exiting Turn 4.

Earnhardt’s team was able to make repairs to his No. 8 car and return to the race. But his engine eventually expired on Lap 288.

He returned to the garage where Busch’s car had been repaired from their incident but Busch was nowhere to be found.

“So there was this interesting perfect timing for me pulling and their car’s ready to go,” Earnhardt recalled. “I’ve talked to Kyle since this and his version of the events is he didn’t think the car was going to get fixed and he felt he got cleared to leave. So a buddy of a mine, one of my drinking buddies that was on the 5 car that I hung out with during the week, he comes over and is like, ‘Hey man, can you drive out car? We’re in a points situation, we need to get a couple more points here and go out and run.’

“I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I’ve always wondered what the Hendrick cars felt like. What the motors felt like. This is a crashed car but maybe I can at least feel the power compared to my car and what I’ve been driving.'”

Earnhardt called it “recon” and said there was nothing behind his decision to drive the No. 5 “other than my own curiosity.”

Watch the above video for more.

Celebration of Dale Earnhardt’s birthday takes place today

Photo by Jamie Squire /Allsport
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On what would have been Dale Earnhardt’s 65th birthday, fans are being invited to Dale Earnhardt Inc. today in Mooresville, North Carolina, to celebrate the annual Dale Earnhardt Day.

“It’s crazy to think what he’d been like at 65 years old,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “You kind of had an idea that he wouldn’t have changed a whole lot had he lived a little bit longer. What he would have been like at 80? All those things would be hard to imagine. It’s great that people still talk about him, the sport, his fans, the media that everybody still acknowledges who he was and what he meant.”

Items from Earnhardt’s past and that of DEI will be on display, and the Grand Showroom also will be open to the public in honor of the seven-time NASCAR champion who died on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. This year’s celebration includes the first public viewing of a life-sized statue of Dale Earnhardt by artist Jason Fizer of Roanoke, Virginia.

The Dale Earnhardt Foundation will be accepting good used or new books to benefit the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope in Charlotte, North Carolina.

On Earnhardt’s birthday, here are some memorable moments to recall in Hall of Famer’s driving career:

Earnhardt’s 76th and final Cup win came in the 2000 fall race at Talladega Superspeedway. He went from 18th to first in the last five laps to win:

 

Here is Earnhardt’s interview after winning the 1998 Daytona 500:

Earnhardt collected his record-tying seventh series championship by winning the title at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, North Carolina, in 1994.

Here is the dramatic finish in the 1999 Bristol night race where Earnhardt made contact with Terry Labonte on the final lap, meaning only to “rattle his cage.”

Dale Earnhardt fans asked to light candles at home to honor late champion (UPDATED)

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UPDATE (Feb. 18, 11:05 a.m. ET): Due to cold weather conditions in North Carolina, The Dale Earnhardt Foundation has asked fans to light a candle in their homes to remember the late seven-time NASCAR champion.

A candlelight tribute was to take place this evening outside the Dale Earnhardt Inc. complex near Mooresville, North Carolina. However, temperatures are expected to drop to single digits in the Charlotte region for the next few nights.

The Foundation made this statement on DEI’s Facebook page:

Since Earnhardt’s death on February 18, 2001 at the Daytona 500, a tribute has been held annually on that day.

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