In modern motorsports, few names loom larger than Dale Earnhardt Jr. During his time behind the wheel, Junior proved to be a capable—and incredibly popular—driver. In retirement, he’s stayed close to the sport as both a media member and a team owner. JR Motorsports, however, races on the Xfinity Series circuit rather than the Cup Series.
While competing in the Cup Series is easier said than done, the possibility of stepping up to the next level is certainly on Earnhardt Jr.’s radar. At this point, though, nothing is a foregone conclusion.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. had plenty of Cup Series experience as a driver
These days, Earnhart Jr. has retired from full-time racing. During his time behind the wheel, though, he had plenty of experience on the Cup Series stage.
While Junior only started racing to form a relationship with his famous father, he proved to be a capable driver. After cutting his teeth on the short-track circuit, he stepped up to the Busch Series in 1996. Earnhardt made his Cup Series debut in 1999 and, come the 2000 campaign, was a full-time driver at the top level.
Although there were some bumps in the road—he had to cope with the tragic death of his father and struggled through some serious concussion issues—Junior still spent 19 years on the Cup Series circuit. While he couldn’t claim a championship, he did win 26 races and recorded 260 top-10 finishes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. weighs in on JR Motorsports joining the Cup Series
Despite Earnhardt Jr.’s wealth of racing experience, his JR Motorsports has never run a car on NASCAR’s top circuit. Rumors of a potential Cup Series team, however, are never too removed from the radar.
While Dale Jr. has traditionally refused to get too far into public speculation, his stance has seemed to change a bit as of late. In April 2021, he admitted that he and his sister had discussed the possibility of breaking into the Cup Series, but finances and NASCAR’s charter system would prove to be a major hurdle.
Ahead of the Cup Series race at Darlington, Earnhardt revisited those rumors and provided a bit more clarity.
“We’re motivated to learn whether this is the time to do it or not. I think it’s probably now or never,” Junior told Adam Stern of the Sports Business Journal. “We’re having a lot of great conversations with people in the industry about whether this would work for us. We’ve got a lot of confidence in our ability to run a race team. …The hurdle is really whether you can make the financial numbers work and acquire the charter.”
Can JR Motorsports make it to the Cup Series?
Given that he’s progressed from saying he’d never want to field a Cup Series team to having great conversations about the future, it’s reasonable to think that Earnhardt Jr. could have something up his sleeve. Stepping up to the next level, however, will still carry some logistical challenges.
As Junior has repeatedly mentioned, spending a season in the Cup Series isn’t cheap. The advent of NASCAR’s next-gen cars, however, should make the cost more manageable for smaller teams when they arrive in 2022. Assuming that lessens the financial burden on JR Motorsports, the remaining hurdle would be a charter.
Without delving too far into nuts and bolts, NASCAR’s charter system essentially allows each team to function like a franchise in a more conventional sport. Each team is contracted to appear in the Cup Series’ races; in return, they receive a guaranteed spot on the grid and a baseline financial compensation.
Charters, however, can be sold or transferred. That means a spot on the Cup Series is theoretically obtainable for Earnhardt and JR Motorsports, provided that the finances work out.
While it’s impossible to predict the future, 2022 could be the year when the stars align for Earnhardt fans. NASCAR’s next-gen car should make a potential Cup Series team more affordable; if that’s a bit more cost-effective, Dale Jr.’s personal fortune and JR Motorsports’ Xfinity success should be more than enough to help secure a Cup Series charter.
For an entire generation of race fans, seeing an Earnhardt on the Cup Series, even as an owner, would just feel right. At this point, we’ll just have to wait and see if Junior can make it happen.