Earnhardt Jr. forced to make hard decisions for JR Motorsports
Dale Earnhardt Jr. has tried for five years to push Josh Berry’s career forward. He got him one Xfinity Series start this year driving for JR Motorsports, and was ecstatic when Berry turned it into a seventh-place finish last month at Richmond.
So thrilled, he used his time before reporters after the race to plead Berry’s case.
”We all but begged in that media center after the race,” Earnhardt said. ”We put ourselves on the mat there. I thought we were brutally honest about the situation.”
The situation is simple: It takes money to run a race team, and the funding has to come from corporate sponsors. With 139 employees to support at JR Motorsports, Earnhardt has to make business decisions that often break his heart.
The team won the Xfinity Series championship last year with Chase Elliott, but Elliott and sponsor Napa are moving to the Sprint Cup Series next season. It’s created a void at JRM that has to be filled, and Earnhardt will do it with Elliott Sadler, who brings healthy sponsorship from OneMain Financial.
The decision wasn’t popular on social media.
Why didn’t he give Berry the seat? How come he doesn’t run nephew Jeffery Earnhardt at JRM? Shouldn’t he help his brother, Kerry Earnhardt, get a ride? What’s he going to do with Regan Smith next season?
In a perfect world, Earnhardt could make everyone happy. But even in Elliott’s championship season last year, JRM did not break even. The financials of running a race team means Earnhardt has to make hard decisions that he explained this week in an interview with The Associated Press.
”People say to me all the time `Why don’t you put him in a car?’ Well, I’m not a sponsor. I’m a car owner,” Earnhardt said. ”I want to have Josh Berry racing for me and have Jeffery racing for me and not in the Cup Series in a start-and-park car. I’d have fun with Kerry at plate races, I’d be dragging Dale Jarrett out of retirement. I’d be doing all kinds of fun damn stuff if I had my way.
”But it’s just not that simple. It takes money, and it always has.”
Running a race team was meant to be a hobby for Earnhardt. He took pride in having a legends car run at the tracks around his hometown of Kannapolis, and it was an ego boost when one of his drivers won.
The organization slowly grew, Earnhardt was able to create a workplace for his friends and family, and in 2008 they hit a high. Brad Keselowski was winning national series races for JRM, which was now a championship contender.
JRM today is two full-time cars racing for the Xfinity Series championship, and an all-star car that runs when Earnhardt has the funding.
”We didn’t plan for it to get this big, but to keep up with everybody, we had to,” he said. ”It’s way bigger than I ever thought it would be.”
So are the expenses. Earnhardt estimated he needs roughly $6 million in sponsorship per full-time car, and every race that goes unfunded costs about $150,000 for the team to put the car on the track.
”Instead of breaking even, we have been losing money on cars on the regular, and that’s the way it has been up until the last six months,” Earnhardt said. ”We have the potential to have a profit next year.”
The signing of Sadler gives JRM stability that was a comfort to his employees. He’s hopeful to figure something out to keep Smith next season, but there’s no guarantees. Smith is in his third season with JRM and last week scored his second win of the season. He’s third in the Xfinity standings, and has not finished lower than third in the championship race since joining the team.
But if the money isn’t there, Earnhardt can’t run Smith.
”I’m very fortunate to be with a strong race team right now, and a team that has a shot at the title,” Smith said Thursday. ”That’s what I’m focused on and next year is 2016. We’re going to worry about 2015 right now and take things as they happen.”
Earnhardt wants Smith back next season, and he wishes his plea last month at Richmond had led to more phone calls about Berry. He said there’s been interest that could potentially put Berry in anywhere from three to six races in the No. 88 next season.
For now, he’s facing the same challenge as every other team owner in NASCAR: It’s very hard to bring in sponsorship for lesser known drivers.
”There’s not a lot of willing corporate sponsors that have a couple million dollars to risk or gamble on something they don’t know a lot about,” Earnhardt said. ”We see the talent. But a guy who owns a company in middle America, he doesn’t see it. You can tell him all day long, `This kid has got it, I need you to pump some money in and let’s take him racing!’ It’s just not that easy to convince him.”
Earnhardt remains committed to JRM and the Xfinity Series, despite the difficulties he has found come in chasing wins and dollars. He doesn’t need JRM to be a money-maker – he understands that just breaking even is a victory – but wishes outsiders understood he’s got a business to run when he makes some of his decisions.
”It’d be awesome if this thing made millions of dollars, but it doesn’t, but we have family and friends here and it’s really about the employees,” Earnhardt said. ”It’s a place that we get to keep open and grow and build partnerships. And it’s part of my legacy.
”I want my legacy to be more than just being a driver when it’s all said and done. I don’t think anybody is ever going to go, `Man he put so much into this sport as an owner.’ To have my name loosely tied to the beginnings of Chase Elliott’s career is a sense of pride. To have that same connection to Keselowski is a huge feather in my cap. It’s special to me. Maybe other people wouldn’t get that return out of it, but I do.”