It’s been one hell of a ride for Jeffrey Earnhardt. The fourth-generation racer began his NASCAR career as a top-prospect driving for his legendary grandfather’s race team.
After suffering a broken heart when his family’s team was shuttered, Earnhardt left the sport altogether. Now, several years later the 33-year-old racer is preparing to embark on a new journey in a full-time NASCAR Xfinity Series ride with the emergent Alpha Prime Racing team.
For Earnhardt, who last had the opportunity to run a full-time schedule in any of NASCAR’s National Series in 2014, the upcoming season brings with it an exciting feel and has him feeling very optimistic about what’s to come.
“It’s going to be exciting,” Earnhardt said of his offseason move to Alpha Prime Racing in an exclusive interview with TobyChristie.com. “Last year was fun. We got to run a good handful of races being competitive. Obviously, our goal was to figure out how to run a full season this coming year and race for points. Seeing the strides that Alpha Prime Racing made especially in the latter part of the year last year, they were really, really competitive with Stefan [Parsons] and had some really solid runs as a team as a whole with both cars.”
Earnhardt touches on nearly every topic imaginable in an expansive and exclusive interview with TobyChristie.com.
Interview Table of Contents
- How did Earnhardt land at Alpha Prime Racing?
- Is Alpha Prime prepared for expansion to three cars?
- Earnhardt primed for a full-time run in the Xfinity Series
- Running the No. 3 for RCR at Talladega
- New tribute helmet design revealed
- The downfall of Dale Earnhardt Inc.
- How did he end up in mixed martial arts?
- What happened with the iK9 deal?
- His management team’s tireless efforts
- Building his own legacy
- What would he consider a successful 2023?
- Full Audio Recording of Interview (Substack Premium Subscribers Only)
According to Earnhardt, it was a long-time friendship with Alpha Prime Racing co-owners Tommy Joe Martins and Caesar Bacarella that led to the new partnership becoming a true possibility.
“We started talking with Tommy, and obviously I’ve always been good friends with Tommy and Caesar both,” Earnhardt explained. “Always speak to them at the track and [have] always talked about coming to drive for them.”
While the conversations about driving for Alpha Prime had always been there, Earnhardt finally bit the bullet in the offseason and decided to have his management team approach the race team to see how things fit with his goals for 2023, and guess what? Earnhardt’s goals fit like a glove with what Alpha Prime was building.
“Finally, I said, ‘let’s talk to these guys and see what their next year looks like and what it’s going to take financially and what we have sponsor-wise.’ We started talking and it was like man, this is a great fit for what we’re trying to do, what they’re trying to do, and what our sponsors want to see,” Earnhardt said. “It’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a tough season. There are some really good guys that are going to be out there this year. Seems like every race team is growing just as they are here at Alpha Prime Racing to a three-car team. It’s going to be some stiff competition, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
While it has felt like, from an outsider’s perspective, that Tommy Joe Martins has been building Alpha Prime Racing at a reasonable pace, there is always doubt when a young team begins rapid expansion.
In a matter of two offseasons, Alpha Prime Racing — formerly Martins Motorsports — will see expansion from a single-car outfit to now being a stable of three full-time race teams heading into the 2023 season.
Earnhardt admits it has to be somewhat stressful for Martins and Bacarella as they hope they aren’t growing the team too fast.
“Yeah, I think any time you expand — I’m not a team owner — I can only imagine as a team owner any time you expand it has to be nerve-racking on wondering if you’re prepared. If you’re ready,” Earnhardt stated. “But these guys, they are looking pretty solid already for the start of the season.
A lot of the reason for Earnhardt’s optimism that Alpha Prime is ready for the expansion is his confidence in Martins, who he knows in his heart to be a true racer in every measure.
“He’s a racer. You know, I’ve raced against him. And be able to do it and maintain a really good friendship. And he’s smart too,” Earnhardt sang the praise of Martins. “You sit down and you talk to him, and he knows what it takes. Obviously, being a driver and working hard to get sponsorship to be able to race, he knows what it takes and he knows what sponsors want to see. He knows what it takes to be competitive on the track. I feel like he’s seen it from all angles…”
Earnhardt continued by saying, “You get so many people who come in who aren’t even racers or don’t understand the full process and what it takes to do this. And the challenges and struggles that you’re going to have to overcome. They just think they know everything about it and they don’t.
“This sport is very tough and it’ll chew you up and spit you out as quick as it can. To be able to drive for someone that gets it from all spectrums is really cool.”
Earnhardt admitted that he had other offers on the table to run for several other teams in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2023, but at the end of the day, Earnhardt wanted to run full-time. He wanted to race for points. Alpha Prime, he felt, gave him the best opportunity to do just that.
“It’s definitely going to be exciting to be out there every weekend. Have a constant presence in our series and give our fans someone to cheer for,” Earnhardt explained. “Go see if we can compete for that Most Popular Driver of the year, that’s on our [list of] goals this year. We’re campaigning. Taking all the votes we can, starting now.
As Earnhardt cracked that famous half-smile while talking about a potential shot at earning the Most Popular Driver Award, he got back to talking about what he expects from himself and his team on track in 2023.
“Just to be there every weekend and give the Earnhardt fans someone to cheer for week-in and week-out and do it competitively with these guys. I think we’re going to be a competitive race team that is going to go and run inside the top-15 every weekend and fight for those top-10s and hopefully compete for wins at some of these plate races,” Earnhardt said with optimism. “I learned a lot last year and these guys have shown strength at some of the plate races. I think with ECR power under the hood, it’s anyone’s game when you have that big steam. I found that out at Talladega.”
A dream came true for Earnhardt back in April when he was given the opportunity to pilot the famed Richard Childress Racing No. 3, which his grandfather made legendary.
Earnhardt started from the pole and led 10 laps en route to a stirring runner-up finish in the Ag-Pro 300 at Talladega Superspeedway. It was an emotionally-charged weekend for the North Carolina native, but it was also a weekend the reaffirmed that he has what it takes to compete at a high level in the NASCAR Xfinity Series.
“I feel like I’m still riding on it. Obviously, that was a dream of mine to get the opportunity to do that. Thankfully, the sponsors I had — ForeverLawn, Super Pufft, and DalStrong — those guys made it possible. Richard [Childress] allowed us to do that. He didn’t have to let me drive the No. 3. He didn’t have to let me drive his car. But he agreed to it,” Earnhardt stated with pride in his voice. “And all of the guys there at RCR busted their butts to make sure I had a hot rod because they knew what it meant to everyone. They knew what it meant to me, what it meant to Richard, and what it meant to the fans and they didn’t let us down. They gave me a fast car.
“Unfortunately, we were one spot short of the fairy tale weekend. But it still was an incredible weekend and just a great opportunity to get to work with those guys and race up front.”
While it was a dream come true to race for the team that his grandfather won six of his seven NASCAR Cup Series championships with and with the same car number, the big takeaway from the race for Earnhardt was that he learned he had the true ability to contend at Superspeedway races.
“…It was also an eye-opener,” Earnhardt said. “If you get up front and get around these guys that can race hard but do it in a decently mild manner, it makes plate racing a lot different. It was a fun experience, and as I said, I learned a lot.”
While Earnhardt is committed to his No. 44 Alpha Prime Racing team, he admits if the opportunity ever arose to run the No. 3 for Richard Childress Racing again, he would have to seriously think about it.
“[I] Accomplished a dream of mine. I’d be lying if I sat here and told you I don’t want to be in that car every weekend. That would be a dream to go run that car for the rest of my life, honestly,” Earnhardt dreamed. “Just because of the history and the legacy and what that meant to my grandpa and everything. It was pretty special and was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, really.”
Each and every year, Earnhardt has paid tribute to his grandfather with a special tribute. Off Axis Paint is commissioned to airbrush a different iconic photo of his grandfather on the back of his racing helmets every season.
🟢We are bringing that attitude into the new season🟢
👨🎨 Noel McEwen
•••#TeamOffAxis #earnhardt #nascar #motorsport #motorsports #racing #racecar #helmet #bellhelmets #foreverlawn pic.twitter.com/arAu6SUToK
— Jeffrey Earnhardt (@JEarnhardt1) February 8, 2023
“Those guys over at Off Axis Paint, they crush it. Noel is incredible at airbrushing. The detail he puts into those pictures and portraits on the back of the helmet is just insane,” Earnhardt said in awe. “The fact that someone is capable of doing that — it blows me away. I can’t even draw stick figures. For me, it’s pretty incredible. It’s something I want to continue to do for the rest of my racing career. A tradition I want to keep. I love it. It means a lot to me and the fans love it and I just think it’s a really cool story.”
While Earnhardt loves to carry a tribute to his grandfather on his helmet each year, he doesn’t have somewhere to display his past helmets — yet.
“I don’t have them displayed yet. I live in a small — my house might be 900 square feet,” Earnhardt chuckled. “I live in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom house on 19 acres. I’m a land guy. I’ll take land over house any day. Don’t quite have the wall space, I have too many animal mounts on the wall right now. I need to make some room for helmets to hang up, I guess.
“But my goal is to eventually have them all displayed at the house. I like to let [Off Axis Paint owner] Greg [Stumpff] and those guys keep one for display. Those guys have always been good to me. If I can help them out and get them some more business, I’m more than happy to do that. At some point, they will be displayed.
However, helmets aren’t the only piece of racing memorabilia that Earnhardt collects from his own personal racing career.
“I keep one of my firesuits, all of the firesuits I’ve ever run,” Earnhardt said. “Hopefully, be able to display all of that on the wall one day, but yeah, the helmets are probably one of my favorite things.”
Earnhardt admits that when his racing career started, he took things a little for granted. Honestly, it was easy to do. Earnhardt was a teenager and his path appeared to be clear-cut and simple. He had a famous last name and with that famous last name came with it a spot on his family’s very successful race team.
“Yeah, definitely. I was a young kid, who thought the streets were paved with gold driving for [my] grandpa’s race team,” Earnhardt emphasized. “And I thought that’s just how it was. I thought it was easy.”
However, that easy path quickly ran out of pavement, as Dale Earnhardt Incorporated ceased operations. The emotions of it all led to Earnhardt disconnecting from NASCAR altogether.
“Then things at DEI fell apart, you know, it shut down and I was left trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. [I was] just mad at the world, really,” Earnhardt, even years later, seared. “Seeing something that my grandpa worked so hard to build get destroyed was tough for me.”
In a story that feels more like a superhero origin story than a race car driver autobiography, Earnhardt left the racing industry completely. Cold turkey.
“I freaking got out of town, started working at a mechanic shop for a year making $200 a week, working 50-something hours a week. Took that time to really get an understanding of what I wanted in life.”
It was then that NASCAR’s Bruce Wayne got an unexpected call.
“[I] got a phone call from the guys at Fastwax, one of my first original sponsors. They were like, ‘Man, we’ve been trying to hunt you down,’ I was like, ‘How did y’all find me first off?’ It was like some real investigative work. But they hunted me down and asked if I wanted to come back racing and from that point, we’ve kicked, scratched, and clawed.”
But even now with his full-circle journey leading him to a full-time opportunity in the NASCAR Xfinity Series, it hasn’t eased the pain that Earnhardt still feels when he drives by his grandfather’s old race shop.
“It’s tough. Obviously, seeing, it was one of — it was the best team in our sport at one point. And it got just turned upside down and shut down. It’s really hard to believe,” Earnhardt stated in disbelief. “Even to this day, looking at how great of a place that was and how quickly it just became nothing. It’s always tough driving by there. As I said, I know my grandpa poured his heart and soul, guts, blood, sweat, and tears into that place. And to see it not a top Cup team in our sport is tough. Because that is what he would have wanted, and that is what he built.”
While the pain of seeing his grandfather’s life work being torn away still resonates with Earnhardt, seeing his uncle emerge as a top-tier team owner in the NASCAR Xfinity Series has to a certain extent helped fill the void of a legacy of team ownership in the Earnhardt family.
“Obviously, Dale Jr. has done incredible things. He’s very smart. He and Kelley both have built something incredible over there,” Earnhardt praised. “You see what they — I mean, shoot they had three cars in the Playoffs, the chase for the championship last race of the season last year. That’s pretty incredible. They should have won it. To see what they’ve been able to do and accomplish over there is pretty awesome.
“And I’m sure that place is only going to continue to grow with the support and backing that they get. It’s cool to see him getting to live out that team owner dream, which I’m sure he’s always had after seeing what my grandpa did what he did.”
Back in 2012, Earnhardt was the talk of the town when he announced that he would be partaking in an amateur mixed martial arts (MMA) fight against a fighter named Chris Faison.
One question I’ve always felt compelled to ask is; how did that come to be?
“[I] wrestled in high school and just really appreciated the discipline aspect of the sport and the physical condition you had to be in with the sport. But after high school, I never really showed much interest in anything down that line,” Earnhardt said. A really close friend of mine — a state champion wrestler, college scholarship wrestling, boxed as a kid, and I rolled around MMA a couple of times in a gym — one of my really close friends Nick Roark.
“He was going to a gym, an MMA gym here in Charlotte and he was living in North Carolina with me and he was like, ‘Dude just come to the gym,’ and I’m like, ‘Dude, I don’t want to go get beat up. I’m not a fighter. I never fought in school, it’s not my thing,’ and he’s like, ‘dude, it’s not even like that,’ and he kept begging me and begging me and finally I was like screw it, I’ll go.”
Earnhardt did indeed go to the gym, and what he found initially was that he was totally out of his comfort zone, and completely out of his element.
“We just rolled around with some jiu-jitsu, and I didn’t know anything about jiu-jitsu. I just knew wrestling and scrambling. Could hold my own for a little bit, and eventually would get submitted,” Earnhardt recalled. “I think I was rolling around with a green belt my first day in there, and the coach was like, ‘Man, you give me a solid training camp and I could have you ready for a fight. With your wrestling background, if you stick to the basics, stick to what you know and rely on that, then I think you could stand a chance at winning a fight,’ and I was like, ‘Man, I’m not a fighter, I don’t know. This isn’t me, this isn’t my scene,’ so, I told them to give me until the end of the day to give them an answer.”
As Earnhardt finished out the day at the gym, he decided to pursue the opportunity. After all, what did he have to lose?
“Went into training camp shortly after that, training seven days a week. I was only in a partial race season at the time. So, [I was] training seven days a week, four hours a day as hard as we could go,” Earnhardt said. “I think I had one race in that two-month training camp and it was Talladega. Took a big hit there, and had bruised ribs. Came back to train, and just sat on the mat for the first day back because my ribs were still pretty sore. I feel like bruised ribs are worse than a broken rib. But sitting on the mat that first day and I was like, ‘I gotta get back to training or I’m going to get my butt kicked in this fight. I’m setting myself up for failure.’
“Ended up going to a boxing academy. I was [training to fight] a guy who was a Muay Thai fighter for like eight years and had been doing MMA for two years. [He] didn’t have very good take-down defense, and obviously taking it to the ground was my game plan. They let me know they didn’t want me standing up with this guy. They took me to a boxing academy, and I got my face beat in by this kid boxing. Just worked me over, and he ended up landing two body shots to the ribs and I was done.”
After the two-month training camp, there was nothing left for Earnhardt to do but fight. It was fight or flight. What do you think he chose? That’s right, he chose to fight. And he ended up defeating Faison by way of a unanimous decision.
“…probably learned more than I’ve ever learned about myself during that two-month time period,” Earnhardt explained. “Just how hard I’m willing to work. Whether I’m going to fight back or not, first off. I wasn’t a fighter, so, if someone punches you in the face, you’re either going to turn and run or fight back. Luckily, I fought back. Just learned a lot about myself and learned how hard I’m willing to work. I feel like that’s only benefitted me in these times and hard times, where I won’t give up and I’ll keep fighting.
“Really cool experience. My buddy, who convinced me to do this, Nick Roark had a fight in the UFC, now he’s just kind of training people, but he’s an amazing dude and was a believer in me the whole time. Cool experience. Life learning and life-changing. And as much as Nikko was against it, I think now he’s excited that I did it.”
Another question fans have had over the last several years, in regards to Earnhardt’s career, is what happened with his iK9 deal back in 2019? It looked like Earnhardt had found a true home aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing under the Toyota umbrella. Then, just as fast as the opportunity appeared, it faded away.
Earnhardt says it was simply a case of the sponsor falling out of love with the sport.
“Just a bad situation. It just wasn’t working out,” Earnhardt said of the deal. “Things weren’t as they seemed. It wasn’t anything to do with Gibbs. It wasn’t anything on my side. The sponsor just wasn’t into it anymore. Things were kind of getting bad and I figured it was best to part ways rather than let it get ugly. He went his way and finished out the obligations that he had signed for at Gibbs and I went my own way.”
Earnhardt says he saw the online keyboard warriors back when the deal fell apart, and how quick they were to throw Joe Gibbs under the bus. Earnhardt reiterates the iK9 deal falling apart was not Gibbs’ fault.
“A lot of people think that Gibbs did me wrong. No. Everyone at Gibbs was incredible to work with. Great, amazing people,” Earnhardt explained. “Coach, obviously an amazing man and what he’s created. You know, Coy, sad to see him gone because he was a big part of that and someone that I spoke to quite often during that process and someone that I continued to communicate with afterward. [It] was a great experience over there. Had nothing to do with Gibbs. Nobody over there screwed me by any means. That’s what people like to assume and it’s not at all what happened. It was more of a ‘me and the sponsor’ disagreement.”
The old saying in racing was that a driver was only as good as his car. Well, these days, sure, it takes a fast car to succeed in NASCAR. But it also takes a dedicated team of individuals to help you cultivate the sponsorship necessary to hit the track.
Earnhardt is proud of his management team at Jeffrey Earnhardt, Inc.
“I’ve definitely got an amazing team,” Earnhardt said with pride. “Nikko Lavey and Paul Baukus, those are the two main guys in my company at JEI, but also the guys at ForeverLawn, as well, have been out actively seeking sponsorship. They’ve got 90-something dealers across the country that they have to worry about and they’re going with me to sponsor meetings to give their advice on what they’ve gotten in return. [They’re] big advocates in wanting to see me succeed.
“Me, Paul and Nikko we go — I don’t know what year this is — I’m terrible at math, but ever since I was 19 I’ve been with these guys and they have just busted their butts for me to make sure I’m out there and racing and things are done the way they need to be. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for those two guys. We keep surrounding ourselves with good people that are going to continue to make everything we dream of come possible. We’ve shown that with the guys at ForeverLawn, Gas Pos, APA, all of our sponsors, DalStrong, Midnight Moon. We have such good people around us right now. It’s pretty incredible what we’ve been able to accomplish and see how life has changed over the last couple of years. It’s pretty cool.”
Quite the ride, huh?
“It’s quite a roller coaster, that’s for sure. One thing me and Nikko and Paul always joke about is that we’re going to have one heck of a book to write,” Earnhardt stated with a bold smile. “We’re going to have a bestseller, for sure. A lot of people don’t see the behind-the-scenes stuff, but if they only knew. And someday, the story will be out. But it’s been one heck of a roller coaster that I probably wouldn’t trade for the world. I wouldn’t do anything different in my career.”
What is one thing Earnhardt knows he still needs to improve on as far as his sponsor partnerships go?
“I’m not much of a social media guy. I’m still terrible at it. I still get hounded about getting posts up,” Earnhardt chuckled. “To me, I don’t see myself any different than anyone else. I’m like, man, I don’t care why people care what I’m doing. I’m just an average day guy, I feel like. I’m just blessed to do what I do for a living and drive fast cars.
“But [social media] is a key part to building that relationship with sponsors to where they want to be involved with you, and they know they’re going to get their money’s worth when it comes to doing the social media stuff.”
However, what he lacks in social media prowess, Earnhardt makes up for with a spotless attendance record when it comes to meetings and calls.
“Showing up at meetings, I try to be on every single conference call we have, even with potential sponsors,” Earnhardt buzzed. “I’m on those calls, skype calls, and phone calls. Flying out to where I need to go for meetings. Conferences, I just left a conference last week with ForeverLawn and the 90-something dealers they have. The week before that, I was at a trade show with one of the ForeverLawn dealers in Minnesota. I think a lot of it is growing and learning, maturing and understanding the business side of this sport is the most important part of it.”
At the end of the day, carrying the weight of a famous last name is a blessing and a curse. Earnhardt is living proof. His name may have opened many doors that would not have been opened to him if he were named Bill Jackson, but at the same time he has been the brunt of hate online for simply being an Earnhardt trying to make it in the sport.
When he was preparing for the one-off NASCAR Xfinity Series start with Richard Childress Racing, a large contingent of folks on social media called the pairing a publicity stunt. By the end of the race at Talladega, it was Earnhardt that had the last laugh.
For the hard-nosed racer, his hard path to the top has been all about carrying the pride of his famous last name all the while building a legacy of his own.
“It’s a way of building my legacy, but doing it in carrying on the legacy that my grandpa created. My grandpa busted his butt to get where he was and worked hard and didn’t have it handed to him. And that’s kind of how I wanted to do it. I didn’t want to have it handed to me,” Earnhardt stated. “Would it be great to go drive a JRM car? Yeah. But at the end of the day, everyone’s going to be like, ‘He’s only there because it’s his uncle,’ I feel like I’ve shown everyone that I’m busting my butt to get these opportunities. So, now, if an opportunity ever did come, it probably wouldn’t be as looked at as much that way.
“But at the end of the day, you’re always going to have people that have their comments and you let them say whatever they want. At least I know the truth, and the people that have followed closely and know the inside story of the struggles and the trials and tribulations to get to where we are today. They know how hard it’s been. They know I haven’t had it handed to me, and they know I’m surrounded by the right people who are willing to sit there and fight. No matter how many times we have our backs against the wall, they come out swinging. And that’s how I wanted it. I don’t want it to be easy. I’d rather it be hard and know that I busted my butt for it just like my grandpa did and I feel like I truly have.”
Earnhardt comes into the 2023 season with plenty of reason to be optimistic about his new Alpha Prime Racing team.
The “little team that could” proved they actually could down the stretch in 2022. The organization piled on an impressive showing, after an impressive showing. Earnhardt feels Alpha Prime could really turn a lot of heads this season.
“I think we need to be right there fighting to be in the Playoffs come cutoff time,” Earnhardt said of what he would feel he would consider a success. “I think this team is hungry. They’re a small team. They’re young. But these guys, they fight. They’re fighters. I’ve raced against them in other stuff that some would have said was better and they beat us.”
The once little team, which has now expanded to three full-time cars, has the persistence and determination to succeed. The team has a lot in common with its new driver.
“It’s pretty cool to see their desire to be successful and their desire to please sponsors. And their desire to keep growing a program to be a successful race team,” Earnhardt said. “I think if we fire on all cylinders and we make sure that we don’t have DNFs and we don’t have stuff breaking, and I do my job in the car and they do their job in the shop, I think there is every possibility in the world for us to make the Playoffs. It’s there. We have to take it.
“And like I said, these guys are hungry for it, and I’m hungry for it. My big thing is I wanted to race for points, and I know if I do that, I can be there in the Playoffs. That, my hunger, these guys’ hunger, and our drive to want to be successful will be a big part of that, and I think we’re going to achieve it.”
Do you want to talk about a legacy-defining moment? If Earnhardt can take the No. 44 car, which placed 25th in the NASCAR Xfinity Series owners championship standings in 2022 to a Playoff berth in 2023, that will speak volumes to his level of talent behind the wheel.
It feels nearly crazy to even expect that kind of a turnaround, even for the upstart Alpha Prime Racing that showed flashes of brilliance in 2022. But with a scrappy driver like Earnhardt behind the wheel, you never really know what to expect.
No matter how it turns out, Earnhardt will have another thrilling chapter to add to that book that he and his management team plan on writing someday at the season’s end.
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