Dale Earnhardt Jr. is pleased with the evolution of JR Motorsports but believes there is still room for improvement
It’s an unusual situation for organization to have two race teams in the throes a title battle.
For JR Motorsports, it’s a good problem to have.
Seven points currently separate Chase Elliott and Regan Smith in the Nationwide Series standings. Elliott’s win over the weekend at Chicagoland Speedway vaulted the rookie candidate over his veteran JRM teammate.
Smith, who has held the top spot for 11 of 18 races since winning the season-opening event in Daytona, had an off night at Chicagoland, finishing 16th, two laps down.
Smith’s Daytona victory was the first of seven so far for JRM teams this year. The company’s recent success is a testament to how far JRM has come in the last decade.
The Dale Earnhardt Jr. co-owned operation really didn’t have a shot at the Triple A title until NASCAR changed the eligibility rules for the championship in 2011. Before that, Brad Keselowski ‘s third-place finish in points in 2008 and 2009 produced the company’s best results. In both seasons, Keselowski was beaten by Sprint Cup drivers in his title hunt.
In 2010, JRM did not campaign for the driver’s title. The following year, Aric Almirola ran the full schedule and finished fourth. Since then, JRM has reorganized, strengthened its technical relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and became a powerhouse in the Nationwide Series garage.
“I’m thrilled with how things are going this year and the changes that we’ve made and the people we’ve been able to connect with,” Earnhardt said. “We’ve worked so long trying to improve and then all of it just came in in a flood.”
Earnhardt credits the leadership of his sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller, last year's addition of former Hendrick Motorsports engineer Greg Ives along with input from Kevin Harvick and his former KHI and Richard Childress Racing crew chief Ernie Cope this season in helping to pull the pieces together for JRM.
“We’ve been able to team up with these individuals that are really making a big difference in how we get our cars better and how we’re setting our cars up and the speed that the program has, the performance that we have,” Earnhardt said. “The pit crews are better but we still have room to improve. I think the cars can be even better and show more speed.”
Earnhardt feels the organization still has room for improvement with the fabrication of their cars in an effort to gain more downforce. Still, JRM has four wins on intermediate tracks, swept the Daytona races and posted a victory at Richmond.
And it doesn’t hurt to have a prospect such as Elliott to showcase the equipment. Saturday night’s win – his third in 18 career starts – elevated the Elliott to the top of the point standings for the sixth race this season.
While he believes in his own ability, Elliott, 18, knows it will take “a team effort” to continue his title run. He understands that “when the team brings its best, we’re capable of winning races.”
“You have to be confident in yourself – and not in a cocky way,” Elliott said following his win on Saturday. “You have to believe that you can get the job done, not only yourself but your whole race team. You have to have that believe in your mind or you’re just wasting your time.
“We still want to go out and achieve the best races we can and obviously the most wins as possible. We’re capable of doing so. We just have to minimize our mistakes and all complete our jobs to the best of our ability. If we can do that, hopefully, we can get back here soon – to Victory Lane.”
Smith, 30, who competed in the Sprint Cup Series for five seasons, returned to the Nationwide tour last year with the expectations of winning the title. He won two races and led the point standings for 10 races in the middle of 2013 before finishing third. Smith is hoping those lessons learned - including racing on the offensive instead of the defensive to stretch out his point lead - translate into his first NASCAR title come November.
But he’ll have to best his teammate first.
“As a team, the (No.) 7 team can improve,” Smith said. “As a company, I feel like the intermediate program has been spot on this year. You look at Chase’s two wins, both came on intermediate tracks. Kevin (Harvick) has a mile-and-a-half win and certainly, three out of how many we have run is pretty good numbers.
“We’ve had, with the (No.) 7 car, speed at some of them and then we’ve had not enough speed at other ones. So, it’s up to us to study what our teammates are doing, to have a little more speed in different areas and to make sure we understand that and continue to improve and continue to learn as we go on.”
As a two-time Busch Series champion, Earnhardt understands the effort it takes to build a winning organization.
“It’s a long process,” Earnhardt said. “You need a whole year really to see all that stuff through. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we’ve been making some good steps toward getting better and better. We’ve seen that in the wins and the performances that all the cars have had.”