DARLINGTON, S.C. — Dale Earnhardt Jr. has more than the Sprint Cup Series on his mind these days – like trying to win a Nationwide title as an owner of JR Motorsports with drivers Chase Elliott and Regan Smith.
Elliott passed Nationwide teammate Kevin Harvick late in the race to win at Texas Motor Speedway last week. It left the 18-year-old Elliott and Smith 1-2 in the drivers' point standings.
“As a company, we’re doing what we anticipated we were capable of doing,” said Smith during the Nationwide Series practice Thursday at Darlington Raceway. “I don't know, it’s not surprising us.”
Smith led in points for 10 weeks last season before eventually falling to third behind champion Austin Dillon.
Earnhardt, a NASCAR fan favorite, owns JR Motorsports along with sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Rick Hendrick, who Dale Jr. drives for on the Sprint Cup circuit. He said the Nationwide team has steadily grown the past few seasons and believes they have learned how to compete strongly each week. The next race comes Friday night at Darlington.
“We want to win a championship so bad this year,” Earnhardt Jr. said. “We feel like we learned a lot last year going through the process with Regan and now we have two teams really capable of getting the job done.”
That’s happened so far this season.
Smith got the ball rolling with a win at Daytona and has finished in the top 10 the past five races.
Elliott, the son of NASCAR great Bill Elliott, won his first career Nationwide race last week as JR Motorsports placed four cars in the top 10. Along with Elliott's win, Harvick’s fourth and Smith's 10th, owner Dale Jr. finished fifth in one of his few appearances on NASCAR’s Triple-A circuit.
Earnhardt Miller thinks those results prove that JR Motorsports has made the right calls on personnel, from drivers to crew chiefs and staff.
“All hands are on deck here at JR Motorsports,” she said. “It was extremely rewarding for all four cars to be as competitive as they were during the Texas weekend because so much effort went into preparing.”
Darlington will bring a different challenge, with its slick, tire-chewing surface and its misshapen corners where turns one and two are different than three and four. Smith, still dripping with confidence from his surprise 2011 Sprint Cup win at the track in the Southern 500, loves returning each year to tackle one of the most difficult layouts on the circuit.
"This really is different," Smith said. "People say it's a cliche when we say we 'race the racetrack' and sometimes it's overused. But sometimes it isn't because that's what you have do here."
Smith recalled how he and his Furniture Row team decided he'd race the Southern 500 at 80 percent until the final 30 laps or so, see where they stood and then step on the gas until the end. The strategy worked and ever since Smith's had warm feelings about NASCAR's oldest superspeedway.
Earnhardt Miller said Elliott's showing in just his sixth career Nationwide race shows the team's belief in his talent was justified. She was also gratified that two great racing families in the Earnhardts and the Elliotts have combined for more success in the sport.
"I just think it's really cool in general to see people like Chase and Ryan Blaney and Jeb Burton and those kids come up through the sport and to be able to get the opportunity to run and do something that their fathers — that's the first time for me that I've kind of lived through that — , to just take it all in and see these kids coming up and doing that," she said.
Dale Jr. hopes there's even more to celebrate in a few months.
"If everybody keeps their head on straight, let everybody else, all the drivers in the series make all their mistakes, we should be able to be a good situation when we to Homestead" for the Nationwide finale, he said.