There is no denying that 2012 has been a disappointing season for Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and his JR Motorsports Nationwide Series team. In a combined 67 starts split up between four drivers (Earnhardt, Cole Whitt, Danica Patrick and Ron Fellows), JRM has a total of nine top five finishes, 21 top 10 finishes and no wins. Keep in mind that JRM is partly owned by NASCAR Sprint Cup Series powerhouse owner, Rick Hendrick who has made his resources available to JRM.
July 14, 2012; Loudon, NH, USA; NASCAR Nationwide Series drivers Danica Patrick (7) and Cole Whitt (88) enter turn one during the F.W. Webb 200 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Mandatory Credit: Stew Milne-US PRESSWIRE
Compare those numbers to the Turner Motorsports operation which has been far more successful in 2012 but without the close affiliation to a Sprint Cup team. Turner’s cars have made a combined 91 starts far between 11 different drivers including Cup stars, Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray however neither driver has won in the Nationwide Series in 2012. Turner’s three wins have come in the hands of his full-time series driver, Justin Allgeier along with part-time efforts driven by James Buescher and Nelson Piquet, Jr. In addition, Turner Motorsports has a total of 11 top 5s, 40 top 10s and three poles.
Part of the reason for JRM’s lack of success in 2012 has to do with the lack of experience behind the wheel between the two full-time drivers, Whitt and Patrick. Going into the season opening race at Daytona, Patrick had made 25 prior starts in the Nationwide Series while Whitt had only 3 while racing full-time in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. Because of this, expectations had to be a bit tempered going into the year. Being a serious contender for the series crown was highly unlikely but as the season progressed it was thought that both drivers would gradually improve not only in skill but in race finishes. Besides a few flashes here and there at the restrictor plate tracks and the road course races at Montreal and Road America, neither Patrick nor Whitt have been in the fight to win in the final handful of laps.
JRM has not stood still, hoping that things would magically change during the season. The team has made several changes hoping to improve both teams. Tony Eury, Sr. entered 2012 as Whitt’s crew chief but was moved out of the role in favor of Bruce Cook after the fifth race in California. Eury, Sr. was moved into the role of competition director and served as crew chief for the efforts of Earnhardt and Fellows. However, things continued to be stagnant. Early in September, JRM made the tough decision of releasing Eury, Sr. from his role then hiring long-time Cup crew chief, Ryan Pemberton to fill the role.
Only a few days after Pemberton’s hiring, Tony Eury, Jr. was released from his duties as Patrick’s crew chief. In the four races since Pemberton entered the fold at JRM, Whitt has had finishes of 6th, 6th, 13th and 5th, an average finish of 7.5. Meanwhile Patrick has finished 14th, 16th, 11th and 10th for an average finish of 12.8. Whitt’s average finish prior to Pemberton joining JRM was 14.7 while Patrick’s was 20.5. Both drivers were impressive in the most recent race at Kansas. Whitt was a solid top five contender while Patrick also looked to have a car capable of a top five run as she made several daring passes on what was a treacherous race track.
With Patrick moving to the Cup series full-time in 2013, JRM will have an open seat available. During the October 10th press conference where Earnhardt, Jr. announced he was forced to step out of his Cup car due to concussion syndromes, Hendrick broke word that JRM was in talks with Regan Smith to potentially fill Patrick’s position for next season. Hendrick has made few comments in the past regarding JRM since buying into the team in 2008 which raised eyebrows and ears all around. It seems likely that Hendrick has a renewed interest in making JRM the caliber of team it was when Brad Keselowski was racing for the organization. It’s possible that JRM will see more technical assistance from Hendrick Motorsports.
Things have yet to be solidified for JRM in 2013 but it does look like the organization on the whole is improving. Signing Regan Smith to a full-time effort is huge for the team and would likely bring in sponsors that would be more willing to sign with a former Cup winner than an unproven commodity. Further, Smith’s experience would likely help Whitt’s progression as a driver. Smith has impressed many in NASCAR the past two weeks, showing tremendous speed filling in for Earnhardt, Jr. in the Cup Series. Should he join JRM next year, he would likely be an instant championship favorite capable of winning multiple races.