As the field rounded turn four on the final lap in Saturday’s (April 23) Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway, the black No. 3 slotted into second place.
It didn’t matter that the car was right on the bumper of leader Noah Gragson, the field behind him was three-wide and the momentum wasn’t going to come in time. The race of a lifetime wasn’t going to end with the famed No. 3 made famous by Dale Earnhardt pulling into victory lane.
But a second-place showing shouldn’t have dampened any feelings, nor did it, for Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Hugs and words of congratulations welcomed Earnhardt after climbing out of his ForeverLawn Chevrolet Camaro. At times, it seemed as if the 32-year-old grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt was holding back tears. He wore a firesuit resembling the GM Goodwrench suit made iconic by his grandfather. And from the back and sides, it even looked as if it was “The Intimidator” on pit road surrounded by crew and fans alike.
The second-place finish at Talladega was Earnhardt’s best career finish in NASCAR, let alone in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, topping a previous best finish of third set in 2019 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
“It’s been a crazy road to get here,” Earnhardt told FOX.
And indeed, it has been quite the journey for him.
For the vast majority of Earnhardt’s NASCAR career, he has climbed into his car and buckled in knowing full well that he didn’t have a chance to win that day’s race.
After running nearly two full seasons in what is today the ARCA Menards Series East for Dale Earnhardt Inc., in 2007 and 2008, Earnhardt spent the next 10 seasons as a NASCAR journeyman. For most of the years, he pieced together part-time rides.
In 2011, he started the season with the plan to run the entire Camping World Truck Series schedule, earning what stood as his career-best NASCAR finish for years, a seventh at Daytona International Speedway. But after four races, sponsor Fuel Doctor left him and Rick Ware Racing, and Earnhardt was released from the ride.
He ran full schedules in 2014 and 2017 for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series and Circle Sport Racing in the Cup Series, respectively. He also started Xfinity races for Go Green Racing, JR Motorsports and Precision Products Racing and Cup races for Go Fas Racing, BK Racing, Gaunt Brothers Racing, StarCom Racing and Premium Motorsports in the years before and after these full seasons. But his big break finally arrived in 2019.
November 2018 brought the news that Earnhardt and sponsors iK9 and Xtreme Concepts would join Joe Gibbs Racing and newcomer Xtreme Concepts Racing, a hopeful JGR satellite team at the time. Ultimately, the deal produced one Cup start at Talladega, a 22nd-place finish following a crash. But more significantly, several Xfinity Series starts were planned. He ran seven Xfinity races in 2019, driving in quality equipment for the first time.
Earnhardt scored his first Xfinity top 10 at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and then, a month later, a second top 10 came at Texas Motor Speedway. He had a race-winning car at Charlotte, but finished third after rallying from a flat tire and spin.
In a few months, Earnhardt had topped his best career NASCAR finish twice. In early August, about a month after withdrawing from the July Daytona Xfinity race, Earnhardt announced that he had parted ways with iK9, ultimately ending his relationship with JGR and Xtreme Concepts, which quietly went away before the end of 2019.
After spending 2020 and 2021 with JD Motorsports and more often than not struggling, Earnhardt once again proved this past weekend at Talladega that his talent can shine given the right equipment.
In recent years, many drivers have done what Earnhardt has done with the opportunities at Joe Gibbs Racing and Richard Childress Racing: proved that given the proper equipment, they can shine. The model of motorsports today often favors a big checkbook to a massive amount of talent. Alex Bowman was an afterthought at BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing, but his true talent immediately showed when he stepped in to substitute for the injured Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2016. Now, six years later, he is a seven-time NASCAR Cup Series winner.
Despite Landon Cassill’s reputation and track record for making teams better when he drives, 2022 is the best opportunity he’s had since 2008, when he drove for JR Motorsports, to win races. Removing the rocky first two starts of the season at Daytona and Auto Club Speedway and the poor result at Circuit of the Americas, Cassill is having a career year. He may sit 11th in points, but has scored three of his four career top fives and is looking better each week.
Ross Chastain was outperforming his JD Motorsports equipment in 2018 when he got the chance to race three times for Chip Ganassi Racing in the Xfinity Series. He won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, proving that talent can’t always overcome faltering equipment. Then, in 2019, he bet on himself and switched points declarations from Xfinity to Trucks, where he won three races (a fourth win was stripped away following a disqualification) and nearly won the championship with Niece Motorsports.
And now, he’s won two races in 2022 for Trackhouse Racing Team in Cup, further proving that when talent is provided the proper equipment, the results and wins will come.
The challenge ahead for Earnhardt is whether or not to keep his face visible to all and attempt every race he can, no matter the equipment, like much of his career has gone, or should he be selective in the races he competes in based on the quality of the car and team?
So far this season, Earnhardt has started five of the nine Xfinity races. He finished 15th at Daytona with Sam Hunt Racing, then ran inside the top 15 again at Auto Club before a tire failure relegated him to 29th, once again with SHR. He drove for Emerling-Gase Motorsports at Phoenix Raceway, an underperforming team, and finished 34th. At Atlanta, he was again with SHR and finished 13th.
Hunt has shown remarkable results with the right driver behind the wheel, most notably with John Hunter Nemechek and Santino Ferrucci last season. Earnhardt has outperformed most of the drivers SHR has put in its cars in just three starts. He’s further proof that Hunt is a legitimate contender for the midfield, and more, if a single driver is consistently in the car, a foundation will be built.
Earnhardt then makes his first start with RCR this past week, albeit at a superspeedway, and qualifies on the pole and nearly wins the race. If Earnhardt lacked talent, it would have shown despite it being at Talladega. And his runs with JGR equipment in 2019 further solidify that Earnhardt is a talented racecar driver.
It is a difficult decision to make: stay visible or competitive. The saying that you’re only as good as your last race rings very accurate and loud for a driver in Earnhardt’s position. If he takes rides with teams that don’t have a chance at a top 20, let alone a top 10, is that furthering his case for a top ride? Will it make interested sponsors or owners look the other way? Or does remaining selective with teams that can give him top-10 results do that?
It’d be foolish for RCR not to have contacted ForeverLawn or any of their other partners on Monday following Talladega and not started the effort of putting Earnhardt back in the No. 3 at the August Daytona and October Talladega Xfinity races. The same can be said for Hunt. Barring an equipment failure, he is getting the job done for that team.
Maybe, in five years, we will look back at this period and speak Earnhardt’s name alongside Bowman, Cassill and Chastain as drivers who took advantage of a few opportunities with quality equipment. If results continue to come for Earnhardt, his name could be one often spoken when silly season comes around. And, in fact, Earnhardt should be on every team’s radar, even if he doesn’t make another start in 2022.
A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.