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Jeffrey Earnhardt trying to make a name for himself in NASCAR

NASCAR driver Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr., will have a full-time Cup series ride with a low-budget, single-car team next season. The name means he already has fans, but also brings pressure.
NASCAR driver Jeffrey Earnhardt, grandson of Dale Earnhardt Sr., will have a full-time Cup series ride with a low-budget, single-car team next season. The name means he already has fans, but also brings pressure. dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

The last time I’d seen Jeffrey Earnhardt was in a hexagon at Coyote Joe’s. This was May 2012, and he was competing in his first mixed martial arts fight. Earnhardt fought well and won a unanimous decision against veteran Chris Faison.

Earnhardt’s father, Kerry – who is Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s half brother – cheered from ringside.

“He was pretty pumped for it, man,” Jeffrey Earnhardt says about his dad. “He didn’t want me to do any more of them, but he definitely thought it was a cool deal.”

So after retiring undefeated you chose something safer?

Earnhardt laughs.

“Yeah, exactly,” he says.

Earnhardt, the grandson of Dale Earnhardt and the nephew of Dale Earnhardt Jr., has raced trucks, NASCAR Euro in England and almost everything else that was available. Next season, he’ll race the GoFas Ford in NASCAR’s Cup series.

Earnhardt, 26, is scheduled to run almost a full schedule. Veteran Bobby Labonte likely will run the four restrictor-plate races.

“This is what we’ve been working for from Day 1,” Earnhardt says. “Now that we’re finally here we just have to keep improving on this program. It’s a small budget team and they don’t have all the resources. But they do a really good job with what they’ve got.”

We sit on an elevated piece of wood outside his shop late Wednesday morning. The weather is ideal. Also, there’s no place to sit inside.

Earnhardt, who is compact and fit, wears a T-shirt, jeans, boots and a cap with an A on it. He likes the Atlanta Braves. He loves Alabama. You want to know about Alabama’s dismantling of Georgia last week, he’ll provide details.

To get to Earnhardt’s shop Siri takes you from I-77 across a series of back roads, each more remote than the previous. Just before you send up a flare, you are, as Earnhardt says, finally here.

Come on. If he lived in a city and wore a suit, would you believe he was an Earnhardt?

Earnhardt says Dale Jr. helped him learn about the tracks on which he’s competed this season. He’s run six Xfinity races, with a best finish of 12th, at Talladega. Next season he expects to lean on his uncle more.

“He’ll be another competitor out there, and I hope he has fun with it,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. says. “I’m hoping some way or another he can use it as a springboard into another opportunity.”

You guys talk much?

“Just every once in awhile,” says Earnhardt Jr. “He’s pretty busy, I’m pretty busy. But he lives right near me.”

I ask Jeffrey if he believes talent is passed from generation to generation.

“I definitely think there’s always raw talent (passed down) in people,” he says. “Whether they can get in a race car and even go 200 mph and not be scared about it is different.

“In MMA, they told me there’s only two kinds of people. Either you’re going to fight back or you’re going to curl up in the fetal position. The only way to find out what you are is to put on the gloves.”

Earnhardt decided when he was 12 that the gloves he wanted would be fireproof. He told his father, a former racer, he wanted to race. His dad told him he’d need to find a car and sponsors.

Earnhardt lobbied family friends, working for one of them, and two years later he had his car. Earnhardt’s stepmother is from Virginia, and he competed at Wythe Raceway, a well-known dirt track in Rural Retreat. He was named the track’s Rookie of the Year.

Interest in an occupation certainly is passed down. Dale Sr.’s father, Ralph Earnhardt, raced.

Jeffrey, who was 11 when Dale Sr. died in a last-lap crash at the 2001 Daytona 500, spent some time with his grandfather at the track, in the shop and on the farm. He remembers a race in which his grandfather and father competed at Michigan International Speedway.

“It was just cool to be there,” Earnhardt says. “Being able to see my dad, Dale Jr. and my grandpa all together on pit row, that was awesome.

“There’s not a day in my mind that I think there is anybody who ever will be better than him (Dale Sr.) or ever was better than him. Growing up as a kid that’s where you want to be.”

Next season, NASCAR’s top series is where Earnhardt will be. Of course his last name confers an advantage.

“The Earnhardt name already gives you a ton of fans,” he says. “Without the fans on your side, you’re not much, really.

“I’ve met so many great people because of (Dale Sr.’s) friendship with them. People will do me favors, answer questions, just (talk to the rookie). That’s the big advantage.”

Some of those fans will expect Earnhardt to replicate the success of his grandfather or his uncle. Of course there’s additional pressure. That’s the disadvantage.

“People assume that just because of the name you’ll be in the best equipment and win every race,” Earnhardt says. “Anyone that knows the sport, they know that’s not how it works. At end of day it’s all about money. It costs a lot of money to do this.”

In the sunshine outside the shop there is little noise. You’re more likely to hear an animal than a passing car. Earnhardt breaks the silence.

“Shoot,” he says. “I don’t even know what a silver spoon is.”

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