JR Motorsports Enjoying Success
By: Dustin Long - @dustinlong on May 24, 2013 | 10:58 A.M. EST
Greg Ives was used to leading the points in his former job as Jimmie Johnson's engineer in Sprint Cup, but to rank there and win within the first 10 races of his new job of being a crew chief is significant. (Photo: JR Motorsports)
MOORESVILLE, N.C. - Tradition dictates that after Hendrick Motorsports wins a race, employees ring the victory bell at the shop. When Regan Smith won the Nationwide Series race earlier this month at Talladega Superspeedway, Hendrick Motorsports sent the bell to JR Motorsports.
Never before had JR Motorsports employees rung the bell.
The celebration symbolizes the close bond between the two NASCAR operations, highlighting a series of changes at JR Motorsports within the last year. The result is that Smith leads the point standings heading into Saturday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.
"We’ve got the best relationship with Hendrick Motorsports we’ve ever had," said Kelley Earnhardt-Miller, vice president and general manager of JR Motorsports.
Before, she admits, the team "didn’t use a lot of engineering-based racing and we just completely built a wall with Hendrick."
Leading the points and having won two of the past 10 races, dating back to last season, is quite a feat considering the flux the team went through late last year.
- The team parted ways with Competition Director Tony Eury Sr. in early September. Ryan Pemberton replaced him three days later. A week after that, Tony Eury Jr. left the team.
- The end of the season saw disparate emotions. There were layoffs since it appeared the organization would field only one full-time car for this season. That was countered by Smith's season-ending victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway, which snapped a 75-race winless drought.
- Sponsor Great Clips signed with the team in December, packaging Kasey Kahne and Brad Sweet along with the need to hire new employees since the team would field a second car.
- Mike Bumgarner left Hendrick in January to be the crew chief for the car primarily driven by Kahne and Sweet. Bumgarner joined former Hendrick employee, Greg Ives, who had been Jimmie Johnson’s engineer for all five of his titles before becoming Smith’s crew chief.
"It’s easy to move people around under the surface, but when you bring in top-tier management-type people it’s hit or miss whether the group is going to listen to this guy or listen to that guy," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "We're fortunate that everybody is on the same page and excited about each week."
A New Identity
JR Motorsports will always be known as Earnhardt’s team, but that doesn’t mean it could be the only way to identify the organization. Hendrick Motorsports is better known for its success and championships than it is for Rick Hendrick, the man who owns the team. Maybe someday, those monikers can be used to identify JR Motorsports.
"Nothing less than winning is acceptable to Mr. Hendrick," Earnhardt-Miller said. "Whereas here, when we started JR Motorsports it was giving somebody else the opportunity. That was Dale’s philosophy."
Earnhardt-Miller strives to build one team into a perennial title contender and have that second car for a young driver her brother wants to give a chance. To get to that level, though, will take help. That’s Hendrick Motorsports’ role, which goes beyond building chassis and providing engines. There’s more Hendrick can do if asked.
"For us, it’s the people we have here that’s different. They want to work with Hendrick," Earnhardt-Miller said. "I can't put my finger on something Hendrick Motorsports has done that's elevated this organization, (maybe) the fact that you have 10 other minds that can think through what you’re talking about.
"We mesh their ideas where before, we told them what we wanted (with the chassis). We started this process last year while Tony (Eury) Jr. was still here. I do have to give him some credit in the sense that we started working on our chassis and working on some different things."
Earnhardt-Miller also admits there were internal struggles on the direction of the team last season.
"When you’re battling against yourself, we're not going to be able to beat people on the racetrack because we had too many battles in here of not wanting to do it my way or your way," she said.
Smith’s victory in last year’s season finale at Homestead showed how JR Motorsports could benefit from a closer relationship with Hendrick Motorsports. Steve Letarte, crew chief for Earnhardt’s Cup Series team, served in that role for Smith. Letarte also helped JR Motorsports and Pemberton behind the scenes leading up to that race. Hendrick engineers worked with JR Motorsports’ engineers on the car’s setup.
The result was more than a win. It created an attitude change.
"We had a good product and a good racecar. To be able to go down there and pull off a win, now it changes the complexion of things," Pemberton said. "Now, we’re not talking about, 'We think we’re pretty good.' Now, we're, ‘Hey, we’ve got a good product.’ One race doesn’t define everything, but that gave us a glimpse into the potential."
They’ve continued to show it. Smith has seven consecutive top-10 finishes this season. His victory at Talladega moved him into the points lead, the first time JR Motorsports has ever had a driver leading the Nationwide standings.
Ives was used to leading the points in his former job as Johnson’s engineer in the Cup Series and he's helped build this team.
"I never wanted to be like, 'Well, this is how we did it at Hendrick so this is how I’m going to do it,' " Ives said. "I wanted to do what’s best for what our company is. The first few cars got built and I got to see what their product is. It’s a good product. Some of the details needed a little bit of work and that’s what we worked on.
"It's building a better car, building relationships and building the people around you."
Through that work, through the long hours in the off-season and through the changes since last year, the team was rewarded with a trip to Victory Lane. For those who work only in the shop, they got to celebrate with that victory bell and a beer toast from Earnhardt.
"It’s amazing how good that bell rings due to the fact that the bell has been rung a lot," Pemberton said. "It sounds really good. Hopefully, we can do that some more."