It was long believed the glory days for JR Motorsports were when Brad Keselowski was going toe-to-toe with the likes of Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Keselowski was a fresh-faced and brash kid discovered by Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who was looking to make a change to his organization. The pairing came close to winning the Nationwide Series championship in both 2008 and ’09.
Turns out we were wrong; the real JRM era had yet to begin. Five races into the season, the team continues to prove it’s the best of the rest. Leading the way for series regulars, this company not backed by the big dollars of Cup teams or which only employs the services of Cup drivers had held its own.
Affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports merely in the wording, the team has built an identity all its own through a separate shop, employees and equipment — plus none of the full-time double-dipping of a Gibbs or Penske, who build the Cup cars, walk over and build the Nationwide car. The sole focus for JRM has always been its Nationwide program and drivers, armed with an eye on finding and developing the next wave of NASCAR talent.
The organization has done so yet again in a season that, early on, gives the impression it could be its best yet.
Regan Smith has already won a race, while rookie Chase Elliott is destined to find victory lane before too long. Smith, that once loveable Cup also-ran, continues to show his worth upon returning to the Nationwide Series, where he has finally found a home. He isn’t a young gun by any means, but as the only regular thus far to win one, he’s taken on the role that Keselowski once played.
Smith is also a Nationwide driver who consistently gives Cup drivers a run for their money. His two wins last year were the most among regulars, tying him with Cup driver Matt Kenseth and beating out the likes of Kevin Harvick. Both were driving cars built and supported by high-level Cup operations.
Additionally, in 2012, when Smith climbed back into a Nationwide car for the first time in five years, he won. Homestead-Miami Speedway was the kickoff of his Nationwide rebirth, one that could very well lead him to a championship — which yours truly predicted for Smith both last season and this one.
His new — and equally impressive — teammate is on the same path.
Chase Elliott is a goldmine. While attention and hype surround him not only because of his name, but also because of accomplishments from the short track world, no one could have predicted what this Elliott would do once behind the wheel of a Nationwide Series car. Heading into the series first off weekend, he’s got four top 10s and sits fourth in points, impressive in every sense of the word. His sixth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway, behind Elliott Sadler, made him the second-best-finishing regular.
Indeed, the company as a whole has yet to make a wrong step. While Smith and Elliott continue to work towards the big picture, the third car — run by a slew of Cup drivers — can also be counted on to be in the mix. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Kevin Harvick started the season by each finishing second in the No. 88. Ironically, the day after each did so, they went on to win the ensuing Cup Series race.
Kasey Kahne will eventually get his turn behind the wheel of the car, which has shifted to the No. 5, later this season. Over the years, that third car has become one that big names like Jimmie Johnson, Mark Martin, and Tony Stewart piloted as well. Jamie McMurray got behind the wheel for eight races in 2010 and finished no worse than 14th, capping his stint off with a win in Atlanta.
It’s the third car that is the brains behind the operation. Smith and Elliott aren’t on an island by themselves; they have veterans all around to gather information and intel from, with drivers like Earnhardt and Harvick. That experience and feel for a car goes a long way in developing a company when a driver can get out and tell the team owner what’s wrong or what they aren’t doing right.
Harvick will play a huge role in elevating JRM. A Nationwide champion who will run 15 races this season, he’s finished no worse than third in his first three. Perhaps no greater compliment — or proof in the pudding — has come than from Harvick, who after just his first race with the company noted that it isn’t building from the ground up. A foundation has already been set in place; all they have to do is tweak it when needed.
Harvick’s solidified what JRM has accomplished through the years and the level to which the team has risen. In a decade, JR Motorsports has gone through the dog days of Kelly Bires and the growing pains of Danica Patrick. Because of the struggles and hard days for Cole Whitt and even Mark McFarland, a return to prominence can come with Smith and Elliott.
The 2010 Atlanta win, which saw McMurray drive into victory lane, was the ninth for the organization in its first five years, but it came in the midst of a team trying to find itself. Drivers were in and out of the cars, sponsors coming and going. Aric Almirola finished fourth in points in 2011 but failed to win a race. While a bright spot, JRM knew work still had to be done.
Then Smith came along, and now Elliott joins the fold. In the last two years and five races, the company has already seen victory lane four times — reason enough for drivers who are coming through the ranks to no longer look past Earnhardt’s team as one for which to consider driving. That’s what happens, folks, when you become legitimate contenders. JR Motorsports is there; even better, it’s there and giving everyone a reason to root for it.
While Cup drivers will continue to have their fun in the Nationwide sun, for fans looking for the underdogs, the ones who can and will beat them, this is their team. Regan Smith and Chase Elliott are proof that there’s a reason to watch the Nationwide Series and that it’s not just Cup drivers who can win.
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