- Mark Ashenfelter, NASCAR
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It's always newsworthy whenever Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs in the Nationwide Series. But so far this year, his starts have been in the No. 5 Chevrolet he fields under the JR Motorsports banner alongside teammate Brad Keselowski.
This weekend, Earnhardt is taking things a step further as Jimmie Johnson will be in the No. 5, with Earnhardt in the No. 83 -- the first time he's fielded three cars in a race.
For a moment, at least, that move may steal some of the spotlight from Denny Hamlin, who will be looking for Joe Gibbs Racing's seventh consecutive win in the series. Hamlin will be in the team's No. 20 Toyota -- the only entry JGR will field this weekend, as Kyle Busch will be in Braun Racing's No. 32 Camry.
Earnhardt is excited about the growth of his operation, which could move to the Sprint Cup Series as soon as next season.
"JR Motorsports has come a long way in the last few years. It started out as a one-team deal in a little shop in Mooresville [N.C.] at the end of 2005 and in the last couple years has expanded into a two-car operation that's running up front each week in the Nationwide Series," Earnhardt said. "This year has been really great for the team. We merged the JRM program with [Hendrick Motorsports'] team for 2008 and have been strong right out of the box.
"Mark Martin scored our company's first Nationwide win back at Vegas and Brad has been making a name for himself in the series this year with a string of solid runs. This weekend at Charlotte marks another milestone for us -- the first time we've ever attempted to run three teams at this level. It's pretty cool to see something that we've worked hard to build be successful and grow."
Earnhardt didn't test with the Nationwide Series last week, with David Green driving the No. 83. Unfortunately for the team, Green's wreck dealt the team a setback. And that was just part of the reason Keselowski took a cautious approach to the test session with the No. 88 team.
"The test was pretty decent for the No. 88 Navy team," Keselowski said. "Our teammates ... weren't as fortunate. Between that and our rough weekend at Darlington [where he was involved in accidents in both practice and the race], we really focused on getting through the test with both of our No. 88 Chevys intact.
"The biggest thing for us was to keep our two cars in one piece and hopefully learn something. You don't have to be the fastest car on the charts to learn. We went to learn and try to find a few things we could apply when we go back for the race. We were successful with that, so overall it was a good test for us."
Not surprisingly, it was also a solid test session for Hamlin, who posted the fastest speed during testing May 12, the only day the team participated in the two-day test.
Hamlin will be looking for a bit of redemption after crashing his car in qualifying and missing the field at Darlington. Considered the prohibitive favorite in that race after winning it the two previous years, he instead missed the race: The No. 18 wasn't guaranteed a spot in the field because the car hasn't attempted every race this season.
Tony Stewart picked up the slack, though, winning in the No. 20 car -- the fourth consecutive win for a team led by crew chief Dave Rogers.
"It's incredibly impressive to me, but not totally surprising since I know how hard Dave and all of the guys at Joe Gibbs Racing's Nationwide Series shop have worked," Hamlin said. "This business has so many peaks and valleys, but those guys on both the 18 and 20 team are at the peak right now and on top of their game, that's for sure.
"What you need to make sure of, though, is that as hard as you work, you can't stop working and be happy with what you have because there are other teams out there working just as hard as they are. If you're happy with what you have and don't try to learn more, it will be easy for other great teams like [Richard] Childress [Racing] and Roush [Fenway Racing] to catch you and even get ahead. I think that's what is making this team so good right now. They're constantly looking to see how they can make the car better. That's the mark of a great team."
It may well take a total team effort for the No. 20 to win again -- either that or just a change in Hamlin's luck at Lowe's Motor Speedway. In his six Nationwide Series starts at the track, he has had finishes of fifth and eighth, with the other four being 29th or worse.
"Charlotte has never really treated me very well, especially in the Nationwide Series. I just never got comfortable there when I was a rookie in 2005," Hamlin said. "I wrecked three cars between the two races there and really struggled. I always took a lot of pride in trying to bring my cars home in one piece and I just remember both of those races being really frustrating.
"When I finally got enough seat time between the Sprint Cup car and the Nationwide Series car, I finally started feeling comfortable there, especially last year. The new pavement from a couple of years ago is finally starting to get worn in, but not enough to see the tires fall off too much over a run. Charlotte has always been a place where you need to survive and save your stuff for the end. If we can stay out of trouble, we'll have a great shot of [winning]."
Mark Ashenfelter is an associate editor at ESPN.
Can the three cars JR Motorsports fields at Lowe's Motor Speedway stop Denny Hamlin and streaking Joe Gibbs Racing? Stay tuned, writes Mark Ashenfelter.