At first glance, he doesn’t stand out in a crowd. You might wonder who this young man is as he signs autographs and talks with his fans. His smile is reminiscent of someone familiar.
He straps into his race car and the easy going demeanor is replaced by one of determination and focus. The unflinching resolve in his eyes is immediately recognizable when you realize that this is Dale Earnhardt’s grandson.
Jeffrey Earnhardt began racing when he was 14 years old. He got a later start than most young boys who aspire to a career in racing. His father, Kerry, wanted his son to be certain that he was making the right choice. Kerry knew better than most that his son’s journey would not be easy.
“When I was about 12 years old, I really wanted to race,” Jeffrey told me. “It took me two years to beg my Dad into letting me do it. He wanted me to be prepared and know what would be involved. So he made me buy my own race car, get it ready and find sponsors. Once I did that and proved it was something I was willing to put a lot of effort into, he let me do it.”
Once the decision was made, his parents have been behind him all the way.
His first race was in the Hornet Division on a half mile dirt track at Wythe Raceway in Virginia. He went on to score three feature wins and finished in the top five in points. Jeffrey also won the Rookie of the Year award.
In 2006 he was part of the General Motors driver development search program. Select drivers were invited to test both a late model car and a Nationwide Series car at two different tracks. Jeffrey proved to be one of the best and moved on to the final cut.
The following year he progressed to the NASCAR Camping World East Series (now NASCAR K&N Pro Series East). He finished the season in fifth place in the points standings and won the Most Popular Driver award. In 2008, Jeffrey ran 11 races in the series with four top-five and six top-10 finishes.
Over the next three years, he ran a variety of races getting as much seat time as possible competing in the Nationwide Series, the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series and the NASCAR Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series.
In 2010 Jeffrey began his partnership with Rick Ware Racing and was scheduled to run a full season in the Camping World Truck Series in 2011. However, because of sponsorship issues, he was only able to run five races.
In 2012, Jeffrey’s emphasis has been on the Nationwide Series program. He has competed at Bristol, Talladega and Daytona. He’s looking forward to his next scheduled race which will be in Indianapolis for the Indy 250 on July 28th.
“I’m excited to be going to Indianapolis the first year that the Nationwide Series is running on the big track,” Jeffrey said. “It should be a lot of fun.”
The team also plans to run at Charlotte later this year and end the season at Homestead. The goal for next year is to run full time in the Nationwide Series.
Jeffrey feels that he is gaining momentum and says that he is “very hopeful for next year and I think we’ll be able to pull something together and contend for Rookie of the Year next season.”
While growing up as an Earnhardt has probably opened some doors for Jeffrey, he has worked diligently to take advantage of those opportunities. Nothing has been given to him and he has fought hard every step of the way. But, he’s not complaining.
“When you go out and work hard for something you appreciate it a lot more. You’re a better person and a better driver in the long run.”
What has all the hard work taught him?
“I think I’ve become more patient and I’m better at putting myself in the right position to win races,” he said.
Before we ended the interview, I talked to Jeffrey about his famous grandfather and he shared a couple of his favorite memories.
One of his most cherished moments was watching Dale Earnhardt win the Daytona 500 in 1998. Jeffrey describes him as a complex man who could be intimidating both on and off the track. But he could also just as easily be your best friend and had a soft side that a lot of people didn’t see.
I couldn’t help but smile as he told me that Earnhardt would not let Jeffrey call him “PaPa Dale” because that made him feel too old.
“He said I had to call him Mr. Earnhardt or he wouldn’t answer me,” Jeffrey told me.
The Earnhardt name is a legacy that Jeffrey is proud of but he is also determined to prove that he can make it on his own terms.
“I respect everything that my last name means and everything my grandfather has done but at the same time, I want to be my own man. I want to do things my way and make my own path. “