News & Media

At track, Earnhardt leaves JRM upheaval behind

September 21, 2012, David Caraviello,

LOUDON, N.H. -- Dale Earnhardt Jr. walked into the media center Friday morning at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with one thing on his mind -- a mile-long track that he feels owes him one. He talked about having good cars and good runs on the Granite State oval, and how it eats at him that he's never finished the job. He was all about performance and potential, showing no hint of the upheaval that's recently engulfed the Nationwide Series operation that bears his name.

*Video: Earnhardt Jr. talks JRM changes

That's the balance that Earnhardt tries to strike these days, as he competes for a Sprint Cup championship at the same time JR Motorsports is in the throes of a painful evolution, one that's seen two prominent executives -- who also happen to be family members -- depart the organization in as many weeks. First it was "Pops," Tony Eury Sr., JRM's competition director and Earnhardt's uncle, released after almost six years with the organization. Then Monday came the announcement that Tony Eury Jr., Earnhardt's cousin as well as crew chief and part-owner of JRM, had split with the team.

"For us to get better, we've got to maximize our relationship with Hendrick. ... That's really why we decided to make the move with Ryan [Pemberton] ... That ultimately led to us having conversations with Tony Jr. and him not quite agreeing with that direction, and us deciding to go in different ways." "


The Nationwide tour this weekend is at Kentucky Speedway, where recently-hired competition director Ryan Pemberton is also working on an interim basis in Eury Jr.'s former role as crew chief on Danica Patrick's No. 7 car. Earnhardt is in Loudon, where he hopes to make up some of the 17 points between him and Chase leader Brad Keselowski. And as far as NASCAR's most popular driver is concerned, those two issues are as separate in his mind as the physical distance currently spanning them.

"It's something I can easily put aside when I'm at the race track, on this weekend or any given weekend," Earnhardt said Friday. "It has been difficult to see these changes, and it was not easy at all to sever the working relationship with Pops nor Tony Jr. We're a company that want to improve over what we've been doing, and we're making some changes to see if we can make that happen."

Of course, that's not to say he's totally removed from the JRM equation when he returns home to North Carolina. Although sister Kelley Earnhardt-Miller serves as general manager and operates the team's day-to-day business, Earnhardt said he likes to have "heavy involvement" in the organization. He and his sister, for example, sat down this week to make the difficult call on Eury Jr. Ideally, Earnhardt would like to see JRM operate like his chain of Whisky River nightclubs, which effectively run themselves with a minimum of attention from the owner.

"The Nationwide program kind of has to do the same thing," he said. "For me to focus on my priority, which is driving the Cup cars, it needs to be fluid and work as flawless as possible. Just as I've said making heavy personal investments in it financially is something I never want to do, I'm not in a position in my life to invest my focus in it with everything else I've got going on, driving race cars being the priority. I won't never do that. I won't overload myself or take away, especially with an opportunity right now to win the championship. I won't let anything take away from that."

But that didn't make the decisions in recent weeks any less painful. JR Motorsports hasn't won a Nationwide race in two years, and that one came with moonlighting Cup driver Jamie McMurray behind the wheel. The team hasn't fielded a consistent threat to win since Keselowski departed for a Cup ride with Penske Racing. Current drivers Cole Whitt and Patrick stand seventh and 11th in Nationwide points, respectively. Eury Sr.'s release was an attempt to change the organization's direction, and although Eury Jr. was clearly unhappy with his father's ouster, Earnhardt said he thought he and his cousin could move past it and continue to work together.

"I wanted Tony Jr. to stick around, and I think part of him wanted to, too," Earnhardt said. "It was a real tough decision, and it wasn't easy to come by. It is what it is." The deal-breaker between the two evidently wasn't Pops, but the decision to bring in Pemberton, who has won two races at the Cup level and is held in high regard by executives at Hendrick Motorsports, which is closely associated with JRM. Rick Hendrick is a co-owner of the Nationwide team along with Earnhardt, Miller, and -- for the time being, at least -- Eury Jr.

"For us to get better, we've got to maximize our relationship with Hendrick," Earnhardt said. "Those resources are there at our fingertips. And the companies we compete against have those resources, the companies we want to be that are running up front in the series have those kinds of resources. We needed to improve on that, and that was becoming more clearer and clearer as we ran the last couple of years and improved that relationship.

"That's really why we decided to make the move with Ryan, because there's a great relationship between Ryan and my crew chief and Hendrick as well. They have a lot of trust in Ryan, belief in Ryan. I felt like he could come in their and bridge that gap a little bit. That ultimately led to us having conversations with Tony Jr. and him not quite agreeing with that direction, and us deciding to go in different ways."

Miller, speaking earlier this week in an interview with SiriusXM Radio, said Eury Jr. remains a co-owner of the team at present, and that a course of action on that front has yet to be determined. She added that JRM wants to continue its mission of providing rides to up-and-coming drivers who can use it as a springboard to bigger things, as did Keselowski. While that can present challenges in terms of performance on the race track and selling drivers to sponsors, it's still the goal of the company to give the likes of Keselowski and Whitt their big break.

"This isn't fun to Dale, and he's not passionate about it unless he's got someone to watch that he can help drive and put them on the race track and become successful," she told the satellite radio network. "That's what he likes to do. He likes those rookie guys, and he wants to be able to look back and say, hey, we put something out there for this kid to reach their dreams, and look at them now."

Earnhardt said he wants to run two full-time Nationwide cars next season, and field a third vehicle that he can drive in three to five races. Patrick is moving up to the Cup level with Stewart-Haas Racing, and taking her GoDaddy sponsorship with her. Miller said she didn't know who would join Whitt in the JRM fold for 2013, while Earnhardt added that the company is in talks with potential sponsors although it doesn't have any agreements signed as of yet.

Friday, though, those concerns could wait. Earnhardt's more immediate focus was getting a handle on a New Hampshire track on which he's never won. With perhaps his best chance at a Cup championship at hand, the rebuilding of JR Motorsports could be pushed into the back of his mind until Monday morning.

"This is a track that I feel like owes me one," Earnhardt said. "We've been running here for a long time, we've had some good cars here, and we've had some cars capable of winning races, just haven't been able to finish the job. So I kind of feel like it's got to happen sooner or later, and I feel like it's got to happen now."