All eyes were on Jeffrey Earnhardt last weekend at Talladega. And why wouldn’t they be? An Earnhardt was driving the No. 3 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
For the first time at any level in his career, Earnhardt would finally drive a No. 3 car.
“We’ve been trying to make it happen for many years, but it’s never come together, whether it be sponsorship, financially, whatever,” Earnhardt told NASCAR.com ahead of last week’s race weekend at Talladega. “It always seemed to never come together until now.”
He also got to work with Larry McReynolds, who was making his return to the pit box after 22 years.
“To have him as a crew chief, someone who crew chiefed my grandfather and won the Daytona 500 with, is pretty darn special,” Earnhardt said. “Knowing the history and how long he’s been in our sport, his dedication to our sport. And the history he has with my grandfather, it makes all of this that much more special.”
After the 2021 Xfinity season, Earnhardt chose not to return to JD Motorsports, the place he called home for the previous two seasons, his second stint with the team. Racing on a tighter budget, Earnhardt’s breakthrough days were cracking the top 15, something he did just five times between the 2020 and 2021 seasons.
Though forever thankful for his time with Johnny Davis, Earnhardt needed to take his funding elsewhere.
“I’m not getting any younger,” Earnhardt, 32, said. “You look at the ages of people in our sport, I’m old. It’s time to either make it happen or not.”
For the 2022 season, Earnhardt’s goal was simple: Look to see where he could get the best results. And even though that would require a partial schedule, his overall goal is to impress enough to get a full-time ride in a competitive car for the 2023 season.
In January, Sam Hunt Racing inked a seven-race deal with Earnhardt, which began in the season opener at Daytona.
“It’s just a matter of getting better equipment and better people,” Earnhardt said. “When you do that, your funds get eaten up really quick. You’ll pay more money for those races to be competitive and that’s the route that we saw fit to take this year.
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Earnhardt’s presence around the Sam Hunt Racing shop has helped the team grow, too. He’s one of the first drivers in team history, along with John Hunter Nemechek and Ryan Truex, who isn’t a rookie while competing for Hunt.
“I think he’s a guy that doesn’t get quite enough credit for how much talent he has,” Hunt said. “More than anything, he’s the kind of person our team loves to have around, which is really important to me. He’s motivated, friendly, humble and above everything, he’s the ultimate team player.”
At Daytona, driving a second car for Sam Hunt Racing, Earnhardt finished 15th. He took over the reins of the No. 26 Toyota at Auto Club, where he finished 29th because of a battery issue late in the race.
At Phoenix, Earnhardt made a one-off start in the No. 35 car for Emerling-Gase Motorsports, as he had additional funding and wanted to compete with a team that fielded Toyotas. The following week at Atlanta, another superspeedway-style race, he finished 13th for Sam Hunt.
And over the weekend, Earnhardt fulfilled his lifelong dream of driving the No. 3 Chevrolet — the same car number his grandfather and uncle drove — for RCR. The deal happened via a conversation between Brian Karmie, owner of ForeverLawn, and Childress.
Believing he would have a car that could compete for the pole and win, Earnhardt wanted to maximize his weekend and take in the moment. He went out and won his first pole award, and brought the No. 3 car home runner-up to Noah Gragson. The second-place outing was his best finish in 136 Xfinity starts.
“I really can’t complain about the year we’ve had,” Earnhardt said.
Earnhardt noted there was a lot of interest in his announcement to drive the No. 3 car at Talladega, and he’s hoping it springboards into “bigger and better things” in the near future.
Admittedly, Earnhardt would race every day of the week if he could, noting “it’s never fun when you’re doing a partial season.” In his down time, he’s been maintaining his physical fitness while chasing the almighty dollar, hoping to piece together more races. It’s something that “never stops” and “24/7.” Noodling season is also quickly approaching.
Should Earnhardt impress enough, such as his second-place finish from last Saturday, he’s hoping to have his 2023 plans complete far in advance from when they’re typically announced.
That, though, is in a perfect world.
“Our main thing is to make it a full season in a really competitive ride next year,” Earnhardt added. “That’s been our focus and our goal to try to accomplish and, hopefully, we’re able to nail something down by the end of this race season because it’s always stressful when you have to go through the holidays not knowing what you’re doing racing-wise the next year.
“I’m pretty confident with our group at (Jeffrey Earnhardt Inc.), the guys at ForeverLawn. They work just as hard as I do to try to find more sponsorship for us to go run more races. I think we’ll be able to accomplish that.”
And if Earnhardt were to get that opportunity more than 14 years since he first competed in a NASCAR national touring event and now in his early 30s, he’s shooting for the stars.
“My goal is to win an Xfinity Series championship,” he said. “I want to try to make that happen within the next couple of years. I think I’m capable of it given the right opportunity.”