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Dale Earnhardt Jr. has Chase, JR Motorsports’ future on his mind

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race

BRISTOL, TN - AUGUST 22: Dale Earnhardt Jr., driver of the #88 Nationwide Chevrolet, stands on the grid prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series IRWIN Tools Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on August 22, 2015 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. is a man with a lot on his mind these days.

First and foremost, Earnhardt the driver worries about advancing through the Chase for the Sprint Cup and ultimately walking away with his first Cup championship.

But then there’s what Earnhardt the team owner faces. His three-car Xfinity Series operation – sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller runs the day-to-day part of the business – is facing a number of challenges going forward.

Earnhardt spoke to The Associated Press about where JR Motorsports is and where it potentially will go in the future. Much of the problems his organization – which started out more as a hobby – faces are financial- and sponsorship-based.

“We didn’t plan for it to get this big, but to keep up with everybody, we had to,” Earnhardt, who employs 139 workers, told the AP. “It’s way bigger than I ever thought it would be.”

Each team burns through about $6 million each per season, Earnhardt told the AP’s Jenna Fryer. If a car is unfunded for even one race during the course of the Xfinity Series season, it costs the organization about $150,000 to put the car on track.

“Instead of breaking even, we have been losing money on cars on the regular, and that’s the way it has been up until the last six months,” Earnhardt said. “We have the potential to have a profit next year.”

Earnhardt would love to give promising prospect Josh Berry a full-time ride, as well as nephew Jeffrey Earnhardt and even older brother Kerry – but JRM has a fixed budget that doesn’t allow much latitude.

“People say to me all the time ‘Why don’t you put him in a car?’ Well, I’m not a sponsor. I’m a car owner,” Earnhardt said. “I want to have Josh Berry racing for me and have Jeffery (Earnhardt) racing for me and not in the Cup Series in a start-and-park car.

“I’d have fun with Kerry at plate races, I’d be dragging Dale Jarrett out of retirement. I’d be doing all kinds of fun damn stuff if I had my way. But it’s just not that simple. It takes money, and it always has.”

Looking ahead to 2016, numerous changes are on the horizon:

* Chase Elliott, who won the Xfinity Series championship for JRM last season (and the team still failed to turn a profit), will move to Hendrick Motorsports to replace Jeff Gordon in the Sprint Cup Series. Elliott will also take primary sponsor NAPA with him. That creates a big financial hole to be filled.

* Even though he’s been excellent in his three seasons with the team, Regan Smith – who won the Xfinity Series race at Dover last week – doesn’t know if sponsorship will be found to keep him at JRM.

* Elliott Sadler announced recently that he’ll race for JRM, bringing with him sponsor One Main Financial.

“There’s not a lot of willing corporate sponsors that have a couple million dollars to risk or gamble on something they don’t know a lot about,” Earnhardt said. “We see the talent. But a guy who owns a company in middle America, he doesn’t see it. You can tell him all day long, ‘This kid has got it, I need you to pump some money in and let’s take him racing!’ It’s just not that easy to convince him.”

As Earnhardt the driver thinks not only about this season but also how many more seasons he has left in Sprint Cup, Earnhardt the owner knows what fellow team owners go through, as well.

“It’d be awesome if this thing made millions of dollars, but it doesn’t, but we have family and friends here and it’s really about the employees,” Earnhardt said. “It’s a place that we get to keep open and grow and build partnerships. And it’s part of my legacy.

“I want my legacy to be more than just being a driver when it’s all said and done. I don’t think anybody is ever going to go, ‘Man he put so much into this sport as an owner.’

“To have my name loosely tied to the beginnings of Chase Elliott’s career is a sense of pride. To have that same connection to (Brad) Keselowski is a huge feather in my cap. It’s special to me. Maybe other people wouldn’t get that return out of it, but I do.”

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