Elliott, Harvick adds make for formidable JRM lineup
January 07, 2014, David Caraviello, NASCAR.com
The return of a veteran driver who contended for the season title last season, the addition of a part-time competitor with a winning track record in the Sprint Cup Series, the debut of a rookie who shapes up as one of the most promising in the sport. The arrival of a crew chief with nine race victories to his credit, and a sponsor that's backing all 33 events on one car.
No wonder Kelley Earnhardt Miller feels JR Motorsports is as strong as it's ever been.
That's certainly saying a lot, given that last season saw Regan Smith lead JRM to the top of the Nationwide Series points standings for the first time ever, this after snapping the organization's two-year winless skid in the final race of the 2012 campaign. Smith won two races and finished third in points last season, and this coming year will be part of an effort that will feature a second full-time entry driven by Chase Elliott and backed by NAPA, as well as a part-time schedule for Kevin Harvick and crew chief Ernie Cope, both most recently at Richard Childress Racing.
To Miller, who as vice president oversees the team's day to day operations, the additions combined with the growth from last season make JRM as good as it's been since it moved into full-time competition in 2006.
"You've got Kevin Harvick, who is unprecedented in the Nationwide Series as a driver, and to compete for wins, he is going to be a great mentor for Chase in the series and be a great person that Chase can look up to to get a quick lesson and move that learning curve even faster. We've got a veteran in Regan Smith who's been with us for a year and has a lot of knowledge under his belt about the way our company works, and is looking to go out and improve his third‑place position in the points to contend for the championship," she said.
"We've got the addition of Ernie Cope, and that's kind of self‑explanatory with the wins and the success that he's had with Kevin Harvick Incorporated and RCR, and … we're just continuing to perfect people's roles and the relationships that we have with Hendrick Motorsports and our chassis and engines and the engineering support that we receive from them. We've had 15 months under our belt to continue to perfect that, and I feel like this year will be a real strong year for us because we've been able to kind of work out, kind of iron out some of the different pieces of that."
Last year JRM fielded the full-time effort of Smith, another car split by Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet, and a third Dale Earnhardt Jr. drove in a few events. This season brings two full-time championship efforts built around Smith and Elliott, with Harvick driving at least 12 events in a third car. Earnhardt Jr. will also make his usual handful of starts, beginning with the Nationwide Series opener at Daytona International Speedway.
Great Clips, the company that backed the combined Kahne/Sweet effort, has moved up to the Sprint Cup Series, so JRM is still working to fill out the remainder of the season in the car driven by Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. Miller said the team would be open to Kahne returning, but right now nothing is set. On the sponsorship front, though, the team received a major boost with the arrival of NAPA, which had most recently been a Sprint Cup car sponsor at Michael Waltrip Racing. Miller said the auto parts company inked a multi-year deal to cover the full season, something it also made a practice of doing at the sport's premier level.
NAPA split with MWR after last season over the race manipulation scandal at Richmond, which ultimately forced the Waltrip organization to scale back from three to two full-time teams for 2014. Miller and Earnhardt Jr. had preexisting relationships at NAPA from its days as a sponsor at Dale Earnhardt Inc., so they sent in a proposal soon after the company announced its intention to split from Waltrip at the end of the 2013 campaign.
"I'm sure that we were one of probably 30 teams that sent a note to them after what they experienced in September, and as they were looking at what they were going to do in the sport. We would be ignorant if we didn't put something together," said Miller, whose team is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports and co-owned by Rick Hendrick.
"Our role was to try to find sponsorship, and we knew at that point that we had the opportunity to put Chase in a car if we could come up with the right sponsorship scenario in working with Hendrick Motorsports. Of course we sent them a note, a proposal, and as many of you know, Dale and I worked with NAPA at Dale Earnhardt Inc. for many years, and had many of those same relationships that are at NAPA. It was an easy note to send from the standpoint of Hendrick Motorsports and JR Motorsports."
The deal came together, Miller said, only in the past 30 days. "To really get serious about it, we had to stand up to a lot of different things for NAPA, as they have very high standards," she said. "We had to prove to them that we are going to go out and do what we said we could do and be a great representative for them. That's kind of how it took place."
From there, many of the other pieces fell into place. With Cope in house to oversee Harvick's effort, JRM moved crew chief Greg Ives from Smith's team to Elliott's for 2014. Ryan Pemberton, a veteran crew chief who was most recently the team's general manager, will now oversee Smith's car. Since Elliott was a Hendrick developmental driver and Ives a former engineer on Jimmie Johnson's team at Hendrick, JRM officials felt the pairing was natural.
"Greg came to us from Jimmie Johnson, being an engineer there for eight years. He has the desire and goals to move up within the various series, and so it's kind of a natural scenario for Greg and Chase to be paired together as they can progress through the Nationwide Series and hopefully for both of them into the Cup Series if that's what's in their future," Miller said.
"And Ryan is a veteran crew chief, has done a great job for us in his role as general manager, and is excited to partner with Regan. They've both worked together. I feel like Ryan's experience and knowledge, and Regan's year in the series and what he has under his belt, will definitely produce a team to be reckoned with for the championship. We're excited about all of that, and moving the various folks around in the organization to accomplish what we want to accomplish."