Jeffrey Earnhardt may have run 24 races in his Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series career to date, but he has yet to take part in the Great American Race. However, that is all set to change in 2017 as he will be run the Daytona 500 for Circle Sport TMG.
“I’m really excited for a chance to run the Daytona 500 – it’s a pretty big deal, and to be with a new team,” Earnhardt told POPULAR SPEED. “There’s a lot going on, but there’s a lot of excitement at the same time.”
Earlier in the off-season, it was announced that Circle Sport and The Motorsports Group were set to merge for the 2017 season, operating out of TMG’s shop in Mooresville, North Carolina. Before their merger, both teams had experience in the Cup Series, fielding drivers throughout the season last year. TMG ran 30 of the 36 events with a season-high 24th place finish at Kentucky, while Circle Sport worked with Leavine Family Racing last year to score a pair of top-10 finishes.
The partnership works out in Earnhardt’s favor in more ways than one, as while some first-year drivers go down to the event with uncertainty for qualifying, that isn’t the case for Earnhardt. His team is one of the 36 teams with Charter, guaranteeing them for the 40-car field. For Earnhardt, it takes off a lot of pressure throughout Speedweeks.
“It’s tough for a small team to a superspeedway to qualify for a race,” he said. “So to go into a superspeedway with a charter, it makes the whole thing a lot less stressful and that way I can focus on the 500.”
The other benefit for Earnhardt is he will have experience on the pit box with Pat Tryson calling the shots. Tryson has spent the last couple seasons working with TMG, following a long-storied career with Roush Fenway Racing which included eight trips to victory lane.
“Pat has been around the block and in the sport for a long time, and accomplished a lot,” he said. “So having someone like that calling the shots and even throughout the whole weekend to get the car dialed in for how it needs to be and the best capability is a big plus. He’s one of the greatest.”
As noted, Earnhardt isn’t new to the Cup Series cars, having run 24 previous races, including 22 races last season with Go FAS Racing. In those events, he was able to post a season-best finish of 26th at Charlotte Motor Speedway; though more importantly, he learned the characteristics of driving a Cup car.
“I think the biggest thing was getting used to driving these Cup cars where they don’t have a roll, coming from the XFINITY where there’s high roll, and it travels, and that’s how I determined the feel of the car,” he said. “So going to the Cup car where you don’t get all that travel or range of motion, it made it tough for me really understand and feel what it was doing. That was a big learning curve last year. Started getting the hang of it really quickly, but it was still a big hurdle for me.”
While Earnhardt hasn’t run the Great American race yet, he has experience at Daytona in NASCAR’s other two top-tier divisions, and ran Talladega Superspeedway in the Cup Series last October. Through the years, his success on the 2.5-mile oval has been limited, but he did score a seventh place finish behind the wheel of a truck for Rick Ware Racing in 2011, and a career-best finish of 16th in the 2015 XFINITY Series event with Viva Motorsports.
Even though he’s entering the weekend a little green, there’s nothing short in the goals as he says they’re going for the win.
“It’s a superspeedway so anything can happen as small teams are known to win, and hopefully we’re the small team that wins,” he said. “It’s really anyone’s race going into it, so I’m not counting us out going in. You never want to enter with high expectations, but we want to stay there for the end of the race also.”
If everything goes well in Daytona, it could bode well for the team to put together more races for the rest of the season. While not elaborating on the schedule, Earnhardt confirmed there are a few races that he’s confident he will run beyond Daytona this year.
“We’re still working on getting all the details worked out,” he said. “We obviously need more sponsors to fill-in a lot of the races. We’re still actively pursuing sponsors and reaching out and filling some of those gaps that we have to be able to run a better program with more funding, and more opportunity to improve our equipment.”
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