AP Photo/Wade Payne
The No. 88 Chevy will be the lone full-time Nationwide Series entry for JR Motorsports in 2009.
In a robust economy, JR Motorsports might have remained a two-car Nationwide Series operation flush with employees in 2009.
But with times increasingly tight -- and sponsors at a premium -- Dale Earnhardt Jr
. isn't immune to the pressures facing the rest of the sport. That's why the team will field just the No. 88 car -- driven by Brad Keselowski
-- on a full-time basis next year, and why it had to lay off just shy of 20 employees as the season winds down.
JR Motorsports was a single-car team a year ago before Hendrick Motorsports merged its No. 5 Nationwide Series program into Earnhardt's operation. Earnhardt said that left the team with more employees than it needed this year, but no one wanted to lay people off at the time.
"We made it work this year, and we tried to pinch when we could and really kind of came out even on the budget, but without the ability to secure another full-time sponsorship for the No. 5 and [the fact that] that program has not really progressed this season like we wanted to, we just weren't able to put the money together to be able to run that car again," Earnhardt said. "Up until this year, we've lost probably an average of 2 million dollars a year in our racing program at JR Motorsports, and that was just a one-car team.
"Working in the Nationwide Series, even [for the Cup owners], is not really a money-making kind of program or a money-making deal for a car owner. You are trying your best to budget yourself to
just come out even. We felt like we had a pretty good package for Brad [Keselowski and the No. 88 team]. We had one program that was ready to sign and we couldn't sign it because it was a conflicting sponsor with one we already had at HMS [Hendrick Motorsports], so we ran into a couple of hurdles that were just too tall for us to jump over.
"It's tough. Not only is there a lack of interest in sponsoring the Nationwide Series [that] is probably going to be growing, unfortunately, over the next year or so, but there's those other hurdles you don't think about where you've got a guy that comes in and says, 'I'm ready to do 15 races,' and you can't because his product conflicts with another product that is already on your car or the No. 5 or my No. 88 Cup car. So you have all kinds of little things that kind of jump up and bite you. It was unfortunate. We had to trim down. Like I said, when we put those two teams together we were really too large in the first place."
It was recently announced that the No. 5 had sponsorship for 10 races to be split among Landon Cassill
, Mark Martin
and Earnhardt, though it's unclear if the team will run any additional races. At the time, Cassill was hoping sponsorship could be found to increase his seat time, but that appears unlikely at this point.
Sponsorship has yet to be announced for Keselowski's team. The driver said to have two fully funded teams would have been ideal, but it wasn't an option at this point. And with the staff getting smaller, he said the team was able to retain some of the key personnel from the No. 5 car, which could make the No. 88 team stronger.
Still, Keselowski said the process wasn't pleasant.
"I feel bad for those who got laid off -- there is no doubt about that. It is a reality not just in the sport, but in the economy that we live in," Keselowski said. "I probably take it a little better than most people simply because of where I am from in Michigan and that stuff happened [in the auto industry, too]. I feel bad about it. I know how I would feel if I was one of those that got cut. It is just the reality of the sport and we'll move on. Hopefully, when the economy gets back going, everybody will be OK."
Mark Ashenfelter is an editor at ESPN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.