Thursday, March 22, 2012

Jeffery Earnhardt slated for full GRAND-AM schedule

Photo by Whitney Richards/Skirts and Scuffs
At some point, when I wasn’t paying attention, Kerry Earnhardt’s son grew up.

The Intimidator’s grandson is just three months from turning 23, and he’s running the full 2012 GRAND-AM Rolex Series for Rick Ware Racing. In a Ford, no less! I never would have thought I’d see an Earnhardt racing anything other than a Chevy, but this fourth-generation racer drives the Poynt Ford Mustang in the GT class, carrying the No. 15 that grandfather Dale Earnhardt used in 1982-83 when he drove Fords for Bud Moore.

Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama hosts the second race of the GRAND-AM season on Saturday, March 31. Jeffrey Earnhardt participated in a teleconference Wednesday in anticipation of the Porche 250 and shared his thoughts about visiting the track for the first time.

“I’m really excited. It’s a track I’ve never been to but I've heard a lot of great things about it. I can honestly say I've never heard one negative thing about the Barber Motorsports Park.” The Mooresville, NC native said he’s excited to test the track, especially since the crew took what they learned at the 24-Hours of Daytona back to the shop to improve the car for this race. “I think going back, we are going to be twice as good as we were at the 24, and I feel like we were pretty competitive for the circumstances we were in down there.”

While they will run a few Nationwide races, he’ll not run so many that he won’t be eligible to run for Rookie of the Year in NNS. “My ultimate goal is to make it to the Cup Series one day and I really enjoy road racing. So that's reason we did the GRAND-AM,” explained Earnhardt. “But we are definitely going to keep focusing on the NASCAR side of things and try to compete in as many of those events as we can and not go over the rookie status but also get as much seat time as I can."

When asked whether he planned to continue GRAND-AM racing for a number of years or if the Rolex and GT racing are simply a means to an end, Earnhardt said, “I definitely love road racing and that's what I kind of took to.” With his first two Nationwide starts on road tracks, earning a 24th-place finish at Watkins Glen in 2009 and a 31st at Montreal that same year, this is one Earnhardt who actually likes road races.

“Any kind of racing you do, obviously will make you a better driver,” said Earnhardt, “and the GRAND-AM Series is the greatest series and a great group of people. Just a really enjoyable, laid back, very fan-friendly series I really enjoy being a part of with the two races I've done so far and the few that I've been around.” While he doesn’t expect to be able to run a full season once he gets a NASCAR deal lined up, he still plans to continue GRAND-AM whenever he can.

Earnhardt acknowledged that while he wouldn't be in the Nationwide car every week, that running a few races keeps him up-to-date on series rules, as well as keeping his face visible in the NASCAR  garages. "Even just having your face in the garage is a big key so people know you didn't just drop off the face of the earth,"

"Seat time is my biggest thing.," said Earnhardt. "I feel like with a little more seat time and a little better preparation, I think it's just going to continue to better me as a driver and eventually put me in the Cup Series, which is my ultimate goal. The only way to get there is to take the steppingstones just like everybody else to get there and Nationwide just has to be one of them."

One caller asked, "Can you compare the racing in a sports car and stock car, and do you feel like maybe you might have picked up that speed gene?

Earnhardt replied that racing is racing, whether you're turning left, right or in a circle, and that "you're out there and if you have a competitive attitude, you want to be the best. Obviously racing is something I love, and I like to think that I have a real competitive attitude. I want to really be the best that I can possibly be."  

Still, he compared racing a stock car to "throwing a big box around through those corners." Earnhardt allowed that the GRAND-AM cars handle better, " He also reminded everyone that his grandfather enjoyed driving them as well, referring to Dale Earnhardt's foray into sports car racing with the 2001 Rolex 24 at Daytona. 

When asked to comment on the rising popularity of GRAND-AM racing, Earnhardt said, "I think a lot of your younger generation people are really following this series and can relate to them because they look like an actual car where NASCAR cars don't look at all like the actual cars." In his opinion, "if you lose the younger generation, there's not going to be fans out there. That's a big key these days is getting the fans out, getting people involved, getting them interested, and that's the good thing with the GRAND-AM Series."

In closing, the moderator asked Earnhardt if he'd ever considered that his first start at Indy would be a sports car race? Earnhardt said, "There's a lot of  big-name people, which is great, because now you get to compare yourself to the top guys and the fact that there are several of them." He mentioned that his teammate, Chris Cook is good at road racing and will be his go-to guy this year. 

"Not only is he my teammate, which you're always sharing information with your teammate, but he's also an instructor and great coach, too. Definitely going to lean a lot on Chris Cook to better me as a road racer, and better my skills for this season in the GRAND-AM." 

Somehow I think Cook's job won't be all that difficult. 

Watch Earnhardt and the rest of the GRAND-AM series teams at 4:00 PM ET, March 31st on SPEED.

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