Monday, November 27, 2023

Broken Parts and Huge Puddles: The Story Behind Jeffrey Earnhardt’s Best Finish of the 2020 Season

Photo Credit: Danny Hansen. Photo used with permission from JD Motorsports.

After a race weekend, it’s easy as a media member or fan to just scroll through the box score finishing results and look at the top couple of finishers and think they had a great day, while skimming through the guys outside the top-10 and thinking they weren’t very good. But sometimes an 11th-place finish can be quite the miracle. A results sheet rarely tells the whole story and that was certainly the case with Jeffrey Earnhardt’s 11th-place finish with JD Motorsports in the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at the Charlotte Roval  in October.

Kase Kallenbach, who has served as a crew chief in the NASCAR Xfinity Series since 2018 and was the JD Motorsports crew chief for Earnhardt in 2020, was gracious enough to take time out of his busy offseason to talk to about the challenges that the team faced in that race en route to their best finish of the season.

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According to Kallenbach, when the team got the car back to the shop after the wild race at the Roval, they discovered a huge problem with their No. 0 machine.

“So, we ran the whole race and you know did our deal and whatever and we get back to the shop and are unloading and normal thing every week, take the top of the shocks off and unhook the sway bar and all of that stuff. Well, I go to reach down and take the sway bar heim off the left side and notice it’s missing a part. The heim that bolts to the lower control arm had broke and then let the middle part that adjusts it, fall off. And we didn’t discover it until we got back to the shop,” Kallenbach recalled.

For those who aren’t technically inclined, the sway bar is a component that keeps the car from rolling over to one side or the other when cornering. The sway bar being intact is what causes cars to be able to seal off the front-end to the surface of the race track, which gives the car maximum downforce. Needless to say, you kind of want to have your sway bar stay intact.

So, did Earnhardt complain about a mishandling race car? And when did the sway bar break?

“No, it’s weird it’s like – I don’t know when it broke,” Kallenbach said. “You can look at pictures and kind of tell when it did, because the front end wasn’t as sealed off as it should have been, but it helped us because it kept us out of the big puddles of water and yada, yada, yada, whatever. But he did say about halfway through the race that it was driving different, but it was driving better.”

Wow, so a broken sway bar, which is usually a death sentence for a driver and team on a normal race weekend, actually helped the No. 0 team compete at a higher level in this particular race? Due to the crazy weather that was leading to standing water in portions of the track, it appears, yes.

“It’s an old wives tale from all the other crew chiefs that I’ve learned from that whenever it rains like that, you’re supposed to take the sway bar bolt out, which is what our car did essentially,” Kallenbach explained.

Heading into the race, the No. 0 JD Motorsports team was reeling. They had brought decent race cars to Las Vegas and Talladega, but were left with nothing to show for it as they ended up 32nd and 33rd respectively in both events. As they entered the Charlotte Roval, they needed a good clean finish.

With heavy rain projected for race day, Kallenbach knew, with starting 26th, they needed to just play it smart for the majority of the race to have a shot at a decent finish in the end.

“Well, that’s the goal every time we unload, to be as good as we can and race without anything stupid happening,” Kallenbach said. “You’ve seen these Xfinity races, they get pretty crazy from time to time. With the possibility of rain coming, I just told Jeffrey, ‘We’re going to run our race and if we’re there at the end, we’ll have a shot at a really good day,’ and our plan finally worked out for once, you know what I mean?”

When the heavy rain started falling, and the puddles around the track increased in size, which led to cars hydroplaning off of the course seemingly every lap, it looked like a stoppage was coming for the race. Months later, Kallenbach is still shocked the race was not halted.

“Yes. I honestly thought when it monsooned, for a lack of a better term, at that one point, that we were going to have to pause and come back the following morning,” the crew chief said. “Hats off to NASCAR for getting us out there and finishing or whatever, but man, that was a different experience. I’ve never raced in a rain like that.”

While Kallenbach has never called a race in rain conditions like that, he had the luxury of having one of the few drivers in the field who had run in conditions similar.

“[Jeffrey] was actually pretty confident because he has run some Rolex 24 stuff at Daytona before and he said it rained one time in the middle of the night, and I think he said he was driving a Mustang for Rick Ware or something like that, I’m not sure. He said he ran three hours in the rain and that he was pretty confident in himself,” Kallenbach said. “I mean, we had Chris Lambert up on the roof and he kept us out of trouble. We just ran our own deal, stayed out of all the mess, dodged all of the cars spinning off the track. Jeffrey’s experience was definitely nice to lean on.”

While the finish was incredible and just what the No. 0 team needed, it wasn’t until the end portion of the race that Kallenbach really started seeing a clear path to a good finish.

“I think it was around, the second or third to last restart. It was like 20 to go or something like that. We were running like 14th or 15th, and I just came on the radio and was like, ‘Guys, I think if we just keep doing what we’re doing. Don’t try to race these other guys too hard, just stay out of – don’t be silly. I think we’ll end up with a top-15 here,’ and then it just worked out,” Kallenbach recollected. “On that last restart, Jeffrey wanted to go for it, and I was like, you know what, go for it. We had been running around all day and he just made it happen at the end.”

It was a solid effort and a gutsy performance. Obviously, Earnhardt did not know about the sway bar issues, but as the track began to get less filled with puddles, the 31-year old continued to wheel a car with a broken sway bar. The pit crew continued to churn out good pitstops that kept them in contention. And in the end, they overcame the odds for their best finish of the 2020 NASCAR Xfinity Series season. Earnhardt, Kallenbach and the No. 0 team were just living up to the culture at JD Motorsports, which is to never throw in the towel.

“Our pre-race fist bump was fight all day or fight all night,” Kallenbach said. “Every time, I feel like there were some races where everything went right and we ran well, like Texas, and something would happen. But we never gave up all year. Because, like in the first Texas race, we had radio problems and then we had a tire go down and we were three laps down. And I came on the radio and said, ‘Guys, we just need to fight right here. Good clean pit stops, and we’re going to get back into this,’ and we ended up finishing 12th. So, I mean, everyone on the crew, the tire guy, the truck driver, everybody at JD really, we always just fight and try our best and just never give up.”

This never say die attitude led to a season’s best finish for Earnhardt and the No. 0 JD Motorsports team when adversity was heaped onto their plate in the Drive for the Cure 250 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Toby Christie
Toby Christie
Toby is the Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Toby is also the co-host of The Final Lap Weekly Podcast. Additionally, he is an award-winning writer, and has followed the sport as a fan since 1993.

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