After many changes Earnhardt Jr. says JR Motorsports ‘a contender’ again

Dale Earnhardt Jr. is pleased his JR Motorsports team has been making plenty of positive headlines this Nationwide Series season.

Years removed from Brad Keselowski’s emergence as a star the company has found themselves another winner and the man who has delivered them into the point lead for the first time in company history.

“Yeah, I think we are a contender. We are just off a little bit on speed, but we have made gains this year already to get there,” said Earnhardt Jr. last weekend in Charlotte during the Sprint All-Star race.

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“I think we are contending well. The fact that I’m getting asked about it is reason enough to believe we are doing well. Used to have to bring up how JR Motorsports was doing, used to not get too many questions about it, and really had to promote it myself. The fact that we’re relevant in the series and we are considered competitive and considered one of the teams that is going to be up there racing each week I think that says a lot.”

With how it’s all worked out, Earnhardt Jr. wasn’t afraid to say it was fate that brought driver Regan Smith to his doorstep. And that it’ll be Smith who takes the company back to where Keselowski had them in 2008 and 2009. As Keselowski was winning and contending for a championship, which he was never able to bring to JRM, Smith was beginning his rocky NASCAR career, one as unpredictable as a race at Daytona and Talladega.

Fitting, since a few of his personal headlines have come at those tracks. After ending the 2012 season in Victory Lane at Homestead [the first of his career], he was yards away from the finish line at Daytona to kick off the 2013 season before wrecking with, you guessed it, Keselowski, whom he tried to block. Three weeks ago in Talladega [where he thought he won the Cup race in 2008] a wreck and subsequent caution were what had Smith in the right place at the right time, declared the winner over Joey Logano and teammate Kasey Kahne.

It’s what has Smith sitting atop the NNS point standings heading into Saturday’s History 300 at Charlotte, having extended it to 28 over Sam Hornish Jr. following a solid seventh place finish in Darlington. Perhaps a bit unexpected but not all surprising, JRM has made many changes just in the last two-to-three seasons in hopes of being where they are now.

“It’s been really good. We have turned things around somewhat,” said Earnhardt Jr. “We still got a ways to go. I think we are still a little bit off speed wise from some of the other teams. We are doing really good in the points. Regan has driven some great races. He makes me nervous because he drives so hard.

“Sometimes I feel like there was a couple of laps at Richmond where I thought he was going to spin out on the inside of the No. 31 car. There are just instances like that where I’m like I wish I could take to him or be like, ‘you sure you know what you are doing? Or do you really need to be driving this hard right now?’”

But Smith has been putting together finishes and that’s good enough for the boss.

“I told him that we are going to put him in position with cars and people to have a shot at winning the championship,” he said. “I really felt comfortable about that. I think if he makes good decisions and we don’t have any odd failures or anything like that we can really make a run for the championship.

“Obviously, we are in good position right now to do that. Real happy with everything going on, especially the people. We changed a lot of people, we changed some crew chiefs and really kept a lot of people that had been there for a long time. It’s real easy to move people around under the surface, but when you keep that all the same and you bring in top tier management type people it’s hit or miss whether the group is going to listen to this guy or listen to that guy or follow this guy’s ideas or the way he wants to do things. We were real fortunate that everybody is really on the same page and excited about each week.”

A recap includes the short-lived career of Kelly Bires, the high hopes of Cole Whitt and of course, the NASCAR introduction and beginning for Danica Patrick. None of those drivers won a race or competed for the championships as hoped, causing speculation and negative attention to surround the company.

Then uncle Tony Eury Sr. and cousin Tony Eury Jr. were gone. Earnhardt Jr. made it known that there’s been no bad blood, everyone understanding what happens with business. And business for JRM has been booming. Earnhardt Jr. himself and Cup crew chief Steve Letarte have given their time to the cause with Cup teammates Kahne and Jimmie Johnson driving JRM cars.

And don’t leave out the new guy, Smith’s crew chief, Greg Ives. Smith’s story is well known – time at DEI after Earnhardt Jr. departed, onto Furniture Row Motorsports where he won the 2011 Darlington race, then a short shot with Phoenix Racing before driving in relief of Earnhardt Jr. for his concussion and now driving for him – but little is known about Ives. Simply – he’s been holding down the same job for quite a while and enjoying the best of NASCAR success. Until this season Ives was the engineer on Jimmie Johnson’s championship winning cars. Now a crew chief, Talladega was the first win for Ives.

“Nothing seems to faze the guy,” Smith revealed about his crew chief on Wednesday at Charlotte and what he’s been learning from him.

“If we’re having a bad day on the racetrack he’s the same tone as if we just won the race and I think anyone that’s been around him in any extent of time or had a conversation with him kind of notices that he just is very, very even keeled. Same demeanor all the time and doesn’t let stuff get to him, which in turn comes back on me because I have a tendency to get wound up very easily.”

Thinking about the championship is a long ways away, Smith knows. But he, like his owner believes that the right people are in place to make a run at it happen, led by the experience of Ives.

Said Smith, “As for the championship stuff I think we’ll definitely get to experience that and see that down the road here.”

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