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Word of mouth lands Whitt key ride for JR Motorsports

February 03, 2012, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com

Surprise phone call brings career opportunity for new JR Motorsports driver Whitt

The phone call came, of all times, when Cole Whitt was home in Southern California visiting his parents for Christmas. It was from his manager, and the request was urgent -- could he get back to North Carolina the next day to meet with JR Motorsports? And suddenly Whitt was on a red-eye, and suddenly he was in a conference room with Dale Earnhardt Jr., and suddenly he was the driver of a car capable of winning the Nationwide Series championship.

In a sluggish economy and a stagnant driver market, it's unusual for a career to change with such breakneck speed. But that's just what happened to Whitt, who turned in strong results running the full 2011 Camping World Truck Series schedule for Stacy Compton's underdog team, and will now pilot the No. 88 car that Aric Almirola drove to a fourth-place finish in final Nationwide Series points last season before moving to a Sprint Cup ride with Richard Petty Motorsports. Weeks later, Whitt still seemed a little stunned by it all.

"Dale wants to take his team to the next level, and find somebody who hasn't gotten a chance to prove themselves yet, and that's something that he's doing with me. Hopefully, I can live up to it and make it happen for him."

--COLE WHITT

"I was definitely surprised," said the 20-year-old native of Alpine, Calif., which is near Jimmie Johnson's hometown of El Cajon. "I didn't know what to expect. What's tough for me, and also makes me excited that they took a chance on me, is that there are so many veteran drivers who have a lot more experience than me and have already proven themselves. But Dale wants to take his team to the next level, and find somebody who hasn't gotten a chance to prove themselves yet, and that's something that he's doing with me. Hopefully, I can live up to it and make it happen for him."

A former standout in the U.S. Auto Club ranks, Whitt came up in NASCAR through what is now the K&N Pro Series East, winning the pole for his first race. In Compton's truck, he won a pole at Darlington and at Charlotte became the first rookie to ever lead the points in that series. He finished the year in ninth place and with 10 top-10s, no small accomplishment for a team with six full-time employees. Although Whitt had backing from Red Bull, that came from the company's North American branch and not the Austrian mother ship that until last year owned the Sprint Cup operation of the same name.

"Running for a full season, and doing so much with how we little we had over at Stacy's team -- it doesn't get enough recognition, how well that team did," Whitt said. "We worked hard for what we had. We were a small team. We only had four trucks ... and six full-time guys between the two trucks. That's what was fun. When we ran well with a team like that. we knew what we were doing with what we had."

Any yet, many of those exploits went essentially unnoticed by Earnhardt, thanks in part to a schedule that often splits the Truck Series apart from the Sprint Cup tour. Whitt believes he did catch his future boss' eye in his Sprint Cup debut at Phoenix, where the two occasionally found themselves racing around one another, and Whitt went on to finish 25th. He also started the finale at Homestead. "I think the Cup races definitely helped," Whitt said. "If I wouldn't have run the Cup races, it would have been a lot harder" to get noticed.

Word of mouth helped. Earnhardt may not have seen Whitt race very often, but a lot of other people did, and when word began to spread that JR Motorsports would have a seat open, NASCAR's most popular driver began to receive unsolicited phone calls on Whitt's behalf. Later, when Earnhardt began to reach out to people himself, all signs pointed back to the Truck Series driver.

"The only time I really got to see Cole race was at Phoenix in the Cup car when I was out on the track with him. I never watched any of his Truck races, [had] never seen him drive before then. But everybody who works in that garage in there that has my phone number called me and told me Cole was the guy. Every one of them," Earnhardt said.

"People I don't even talk to, people that I don't really have relationships with, took time out of their day to call me and say, 'That's the guy you need to hire.' They had no other interest other than seeing Cole do well and get an opportunity. I thought it said a lot for people to do that. And the ones that I reached out to, [Whitt] was the first guy on their list. I trusted all these people, and I feel like the guy, from what I can tell, what I can see, that he deserves an opportunity. This might be his only opportunity, so I wanted to be the one to give it to him."

And so events were set in motion, from JR Motorsports co-owner and general manager Kelley Earnhardt-Miller contacting Whitt's manager, to that last-minute red-eye from San Diego to Charlotte, to Whitt sitting down with Earnhardt, Tony Eury Sr., and Tony Eury Jr. and spelling out his background. "It's pretty weird going to meet Dale Jr., a guy who's in the media so much," Whitt admitted. "It's pretty cool to sit down and talk to him a little bit. But you can't be kind of star-struck. You've got to think, 'OK, this is a boss you're trying to impress.'"

Evidently, Whitt did, despite the fact that there were other, more experienced drivers available for the seat. But Earnhardt didn't want them. Just as he did with Brad Keselowski -- whose stint in JR Motorsports' No. 88 car proved a springboard to Sprint Cup success -- and to a lesser degree with Almirola, Earnhardt preferred to provide a breakthrough opportunity to a driver who seemed deserving of one.

"I just felt like Cole had some potential that was untapped, that he had potential and ability that he hadn't even discovered yet. And I feel like in the guys that we looked at, we sort of know what kind of hand and cars they had, and what kind of talent they had, and where they would take us. And I think it's more exciting -- a lot more risky, but more exciting -- to go with a guy who you don't really know what he's capable of and could be big things. But you've just got to take that risk," Earnhardt said.

"And that's really why I do it. I don't do it to make money. I don't have a whole lot of other reasons to be in the Nationwide Series other than just to help somebody. When I'm able to do that, I enjoy seeing what happened to Brad and seeing Aric get a deal like he's got now. That's why I do it, you know. It's [more fun] to help the new guy than it is to help the guy that's kind of been through the wringer a few times. Everybody deserves their opportunity, and I just feel like that was going to be Cole's only shot."