Depressed economy forces Earnhardt's hand at JR Motorsports

Updated: November 4, 2008

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 mark.ashenfelter@espn.com.

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We take a look back at Kyle Busch's win at Texas and preview this weekend's race at Phoenix. We spotlight Bobby Hamilton Jr. and find out how the drivers get around Phoenix's tricky 1-mile layout.
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Bobby Hamilton Jr.

Hamilton

Team Rensi Motorsports nearly closed its doors after Memphis but showed up at Texas without sponsorship for its Ford. The team did, however, have financial backing, thanks to driver Bobby Hamilton Jr.

While he's not exactly sure what the final number will be, Hamilton told the team's owners that he'd spend up to $380,000 out of pocket so the team could run the year's final three races.

"It wasn't a tough decision," Hamilton said at Texas. "As far as the financial side of it, I could sit home and save money -- it would have been a whole lot cheaper -- and still kept looking for a job. But this deal is far from over with.

"They're in negotiations with sponsors, they're talking to people and there's people calling. NASCAR is one of the biggest places that [sponsors] want to be in. If we would have shut down, we'd have knocked all of those chances out. The best thing we could have done is do what we've done."

While Hamilton isn't exactly having a banner season -- just one top-5 and two top-10s -- he sits 15th in points and the team is solidly in the top 30 in the owners' standings. That guarantees the team a berth in the first five races next year, a spot it would lose if the team fails to attempt one of the remaining races this season.

That means a lot to a team as it searches for sponsors, even though there's a chance car counts will be down next season. Still, that wasn't enough motivation to keep the team going without additional funding.

"Ed Rensi has spent millions and millions of dollars of his own and he just couldn't do it no more," Hamilton said. "We're fortunate enough to be in a situation where I could, so we had to be here. Sitting home ain't me. It's going to cost me some money to do it, but I want to race."

It wasn't a decision Hamilton made lightly, either.

"I'm not one of these people who pays for anything. I think a driver needs to be put in a seat because of the credibility of a driver and what the driver can bring you," Hamilton said. "I'm not buying nothing -- I'm keeping my team alive. I didn't have a choice -- they were going to let my guys go. At the end of the year, we don't have anything. But right now, we have a team that's capable of running from 12th to 15th to 10th every week; I just didn't see the need to let that go."

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Patrick Carpentier was on the initial entry list, but it was a foregone conclusion he wouldn't be in that car as he parted ways with GEM a month ago.

Kyle Busch, who won at PIR in April in a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, will be in Braun Racing's No. 32 Camry as he goes for his record-setting 11th win.