By Toby Christie, NASCAR Editor
Jeffrey Earnhardt is a 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie of the year candidate, who is trying to help the Go FAS Racing team reach the next level in the sport. He also has the immense pressure of trying to uphold the legacy of the Earnhardt name, while learning the ropes at NASCAR’s top level. Earnhardt is coming off of his career-best finish of 32nd this past week at Bristol, and a couple of weeks ago at Texas he sat down with Tribute Racing to talk about a plethora of topics.
In sitting down with the 26-year old driver, you can tell right away how humble working up the NASCAR ladder the hard way has made him.
“I’ve got a long way to go as far as learning, and developing my driving skills in these Cup cars. They’re a whole different animal and completely different from Xfinity cars,” Earnhardt admitted. “So I’ve struggled with that the first few races, and I’m still struggling with that. The learning curve is starting to be better.”
Even though he is still learning on the fly, you really get a sense that Earnhardt genuinely appreciates the hard work put in by his team.
“I think 12 or 13 employees is all we have. A couple of guys stayed back at the shop, and the rest are travel guys. They work all week in the shop, and then come on the road all weekend. Like I said, they bust their ass man,” Earnhardt said. “I can’t talk about how hard they work, or how good of workers they are enough, because they really do go above and beyond. They put in those late hours at the shop whenever most of these teams are going home at five o’clock, these guys are busting their ass until eight, 10, hell midnight sometimes to get these cars ready. It’s a big difference.”
Due to sponsorship constraints, Earnhardt is running a little bit less than a full schedule this season. However, the one benefit to not running the full schedule is that Earnhardt gets a ton of time with his new found mentor, and fellow driver of the No. 32, Bobby Labonte.
“He’s great. Bobby has a ton of experience. He’s a champion for a reason. He’s excellent behind the wheel. It’s been cool having him as a teammate, I guess an assistant slash coach I guess you could say,” Earnhardt said. “But he has a whole book of knowledge that he’s able to share. A lot of good advice just as far as how to handle stuff in the NASCAR world. He’s been in it for a long time, and he’s been very successful doing it.”
In previous years, one of the biggest challenges for young drivers on under funded teams was just making the show. This offseason however, NASCAR adapted a new charter system, which guaranteed starting spots to 36 full-time Sprint Cup teams. Go FAS Racing received one of the charters, and as a result Earnhardt has had a huge burden lifted from his plate.
“It’s a big stress reliever. Knowing that you’re a charter. You’re locked in. You don’t have to worry about where you have to start. I’m a horrible qualifier so it’s really good for me,” Earnhardt quipped. “It gives us more of an opportunity to focus on that race run rather than qualifying. I mean hell, you can start wherever you want, but it’s more important to know you’re going to race good than to qualify in my opinion. Track position is important at a lot of tracks we go to, but if your car isn’t running good you can get all the track position you want, but if it’s going to go to crap after five laps it isn’t going to do you any good anyway.”
Earnhardt has been building rapport with his veteran crew chief, Wally Rogers. Rogers has been a Sprint Cup crew chief for eight years, and has won seven races in the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Camping World Truck Series. So far the relationship is building nicely.
“I think we spend more time talking about hunting than anything, but Wally is a great dude,” Earnhardt stated emphatically. “He’s got a lot of knowledge, and a lot of experience under his belt. He’s been a huge help to the team here at Go Fas. The car chief, Clint Cram I’ve got a lot of history with him. We go all the way back to the Busch East Series when I ran it. Got a great relationship with him, and the whole team really.”
Earnhardt, Rogers and the No. 32 team have struggled to put down strong results, but a lot of that is because the team isn’t affiliated with any larger teams. Smaller teams that are performing well like JTG Daugherty Racing, and Front Row Motorsports have forged technical alliances with bigger teams such as Richard Childress Racing and Roush Fenway Racing. So is a technical alliance in Go Fas Racing’s future?
“We’ve talked about it,” Earnhardt answered. “At the end of the day it’s all about money. Can-Am has stepped up tremendously this year in backing me and Go Fas Racing, but it’s just going to be determined on how much we can continue to build our sponsorship and relationships with different people like Can-Am, Keen Parts and some of the other great sponsors we’re affiliated with.
“We’re going to keep building this program each year, and hopefully next year we’ll be that much better. And maybe that possibly will be an opportunity that we will reach out to. Roush and Ford have given us a pretty good amount of backing. Ford has been good to us this year. Roush has given us great motors. We’re running Roush chassis and all that good stuff. It just comes down to money and being able to have all those little pieces together.”
In the meantime, Earnhardt will continue to work on easing the steep learning curve that is transitioning from the Truck Series and Xfinity Series to being a Sprint Cup Series competitor. Earnhardt knows exactly what he has to do to keep the ship heading in a good direction.
“Just keep learning and logging laps. Our main thing each weekend is to finish races and we’ve done that. Fortunately we haven’t had any incidents where we weren’t able to finish,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve tried to do the best I could at keeping the cars in one piece. Aside from a right side every single weekend, I’ve done pretty decent at that. Just flirting with the wall a little too much.”
In seven total career Sprint Cup Series starts (two in 2015 and five in 2016), Earnhardt has yet to register a DNF (did not finish). According to the North Carolina native, it’s because the one thing that twists him up inside all week long is crashing.
“To me anytime I wreck a racecar [is the worst], because it sucks to destroy something that these guys work so hard to put together. Whether its my fault, or not my fault it sucks either way. At the end of the day its me behind the wheel. It sucks that I wrecked something like that,” Earnhardt said. “I do take it personal any time I wreck a car, because like I said — with any team I’ve been with in the past, I’ve always been with smaller teams — they’ve really worked really hard. Many many hours in getting those cars to the track, and it sucks when you take that and ruin it.”
Earnhardt was a top-tier prospective talent in 2007, and his future in racing looked cemented. But being a teenager, Earnhardt’s level of focus wasn’t what it could have been, and several of his opportunities fizzled out. As a result, he has had to literally scratch and claw his way to the Sprint Cup level. But Earnhardt is determined to parlay this latest opportunity into a successful NASCAR career.
“Your whole goal in life as a racecar driver is to be at the top level, and to be a champion — that’s the ultimate goal,” Earnhardt explained. “To finally make it to the cup level is a dream come true. It’s what I’ve been focused on my whole life is to be in this level. And in any sport you should always want to be the best at whatever. Now I’ve made it to this game, now I just have to work on trying to be a champion.
“Hopefully things keep building and things keep getting better each year and things will go my way. It’s a tough business these days, as I said its all about money. It’s all who has deeper pockets, and it’s unfortunate that it’s that way. Because there’s probably a million drivers who can drive circles around me or hell anyone in this garage, but they may never get the opportunity because of financial situations.”
Earnhardt returns this week to the site of his first Cup Series start, Richmond. In his only previous Cup Series start at the 0.75-mile speedway, Earnhardt finished in 40th. He, Rogers and the entire small bunch of Go Fas Racing employees will do everything in their power to have a better outing this time around.
Image: NASCAR Media Group