Proven drivers becoming more important for JR Motorsports
JR Motorsports is the organization that helped Brad Keselowski make the transition from unknown driver to Sprint Cup champion. It provided Danica Patrick her first foothold in NASCAR and gave Cole Whitt his biggest break. The NASCAR Nationwide Series team founded by Dale Earnhardt Jr. was built on the concept of affording up-and-coming drivers the chance they needed to take the next step in their careers.
But the changing landscape of the Nationwide Series has forced JRM to alter its approach, and the team heads into the 2013 season with two cars fronted by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race winners. Former Southern 500 champion Regan Smith will compete for the championship in the organization’s No. 7 entry, while the No. 5 car will run the majority of the season and be split between Brad Sweet and three-time Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup participant Kasey Kahne.
A large part of that puzzle came together Wednesday when the Great Clips Inc. sponsorship that had backed an entry for Kahne and Sweet at Turner Motorsports moved to JRM, becoming primary sponsor of a No. 5 car that will compete in 27 events. Earnhardt will run a No. 88 car in four Nationwide races this season, the opener at Daytona among them. For the time being, that leaves no place for Whitt, the 21-year-old who finished seventh in final Nationwide points last season.
It’s a shift in focus that clearly pains the folks at JRM, who looked at the evolving Nationwide scene around them -- one that includes former Sprint Cup drivers in Elliott Sadler and Brian Vickers, and other entries fielded directly by Sprint Cup teams -- and believed they had no choice but to follow suit.
"We're competing for wins against Gibbs and Penske and Childress."
-- Kelley Earnhardt Miller, JR Motorsports general manager
“We’re competing for wins against Gibbs and Penske and Childress. Putting the effort together, the whole combination of car driver and crew has been at the forefront of our mind this past year as we’ve worked to compete with those guys,” said JRM General Manager Kelley Earnhardt Miller, whose team featured Whitt and Patrick -- now at the Sprint Cup level with Stewart-Haas Racing -- behind the wheel last year.
“We don’t want to be an eighth-to-15th place car week in and week out,” she added. “And if you look at the top drivers … just trying to compete with that at the Nationwide level, we’ve kind of had to abort the up-and-coming drivers stance that’s kind of been strong with this company. Before we had Danica, we were able to do that with one car -- we’d have our strong driver in one car, and our up-and-coming driver the other, and it would balance out and showcase what our program could do. These last couple of years where we’ve had rookies in there, which was the case with Cole and Danica, it’s been much harder to evaluate our equipment ... because they’re both still learning and they’re both still figuring it out.”
The change in philosophy paid an immediate dividend late last season when Smith won at Homestead in a tune-up start for JRM. It was the team’s first victory since Jamie McMurray won at Atlanta in 2010. Even so, the team was prepared to go into 2013 with only one full-time car until JRM received a call from a Great Clips representative in early December. Although the schedule for the No. 5 car hasn’t been finalized, Miller guessed Kahne would start 10 to 15 events in the vehicle with Sweet filling out the rest.
Kahne had started a handful of Nationwide events for JRM in the past, and Miller said Kahne was interested in running more even if his longtime Great Clips backing had remained with Turner. The fact that Kahne and Earnhardt compete for the same Sprint Cup team, Hendrick Motorsports, probably didn’t hurt in enticing both driver and sponsor to a new home.
“He’s always been a possibility to race for JR Motorsports, if we had the funding and the cars available for him,” Miller said of Kahne. “Really, the situation with him and Brad wasn’t an option until we received that phone call in December. It does make great sense for us, though, with our relationship with Hendrick, and Kasey and Dale both being drivers there. It’s a good opportunity for everybody to kind of work together.”
Whitt remains the odd driver out. Miller said JRM would like to fill out the balance of the season and compete for the owner’s championship with the No. 5, which could involve putting Ron Fellows in the seat for road-course races. There’s also hope sponsorship can be found to allow Whitt to drive the car for those remaining events.
“Cole is extremely talented. He’s a great kid, and youth is on his side. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity for him in the sport in the future, and we’d definitely like to keep that relationship,” Miller said. “I’ve told him, he’s still welcome here, and we’re still working really hard to put something around him. He can travel to the races with us and stay involved as much as he wants until hopefully something comes together. But when these sponsors are paying these dollars, they want to see their cars in Victory Lane.”