BIRMINGHAM, Ala.-Kerry Earnhardt says it without hesitation or bitterness: He didn’t get the same breaks in his racing career as half brother Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It’s hard to win races and woo adoring fans when you’re laboring in a textile mill in rural North Carolina (four years) or working in the service department at your father’s Chevrolet dealership (six years).
“Racing was like a hobby for me at the time because I had to work and provide for my family and make sure they had a roof over their head and food on the table,” Earnhardt said. “That was my main concern at the time.”
Earnhardt, 34, is taking another run at NASCAR’s top circuit.
Fittingly, he will renew his quest at the Aaron’s 499 on April 25 at Talladega Superspeedway, where his father, Dale, and younger brother have dominated through the years.
Richard Childress Racing offered Earnhardt a part-time gig in January, driving a black No. 33 Chevrolet in at least five races this year. For Earnhardt, it was a chance to prove he is ready for the Nextel Cup series and maybe earn a full-time ride for next year.
For Childress, it was a chance to help out the oldest son of Dale Earnhardt, who won six of his seven Cup championships with RCR.
“Hoping to help Kerry out is our main focus, trying to put him in some first-rate equipment with some first-rate people and hopefully let people see what he can do,” said Bobby Hutchens, RCR’s director of competition and a former crew member of Dale Earnhardt’s.
When Kerry races next weekend, it will be the first time an Earnhardt has driven a Cup car for RCR since the family’s racing patriarch died in 2001.
Earnhardt didn’t fare particularly well in his other start in NASCAR’s top series, finishing 30th at Michigan International Speedway in 2000.
Two years later, he failed to qualify for the EA Sports 500 at Talladega, where Dale Jr. set a track record with four straight Cup wins and the elder Earnhardt’s 10 victories is the most.
Earnhardt and his team are confident he will be able to qualify this time.
“We’re hoping we’re going to be a diamond in the rough,” Hutchens said. “We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure we’ve got a good car for the race, and hopefully we can showcase his talents.”
Earnhardt spent two years with FitzBradshaw Racing, which Terry Bradshaw, an NFL Hall of Famer, co-owns, in the Busch Series but lost his ride midway through last season.
While Dale Jr. was racing to NASCAR stardom, Earnhardt was raising four kids and driving mostly in obscurity, everywhere from ARCA and the Busch Series to late model stock cars in Hickory, N.C.
Although his racing career has never taken off like that of his relatives, it has had some success.
In 2001, he won three straight ARCA races. The next year, he had five top-10 finishes in 34 starts on the Busch Series, finishing second in Kansas and fifth in Memphis and winning a little more than $622,000.
Last year, though, he failed to finish higher than 14th in 21 starts and lost his ride in July.
“Kerry has had a rougher time of it (than me), not because he’s less talented, but because he’s had a lot of other things going on in his life,” Dale Jr. said at the time. “All I wanted to do was drive race cars, and that’s what I’ve been able to do. Kerry has different responsibilities; he has a family and kids, and that means he has not been able to devote the time and energy to a full-time ride.”
Dale Jr. was a hot rookie with two Cup wins and their father was at the top of his form in 2000 when Earnhardt qualified for his only Cup race, the Pepsi 400 at Michigan Speedway. It took two tries.
“In the first round of qualifying, I messed up in turn three and just barely missed the Show,” Earnhardt said. “Of course, I got a good lecture that night, so the next day I went out and qualified.”
When they started that Pepsi 400, it was the first time a father and his two sons had started in a Cup event since Lee Petty and sons Richard and Maurice in 1960. The race didn’t end well for the older brother, who crashed six laps in.
Rain hampered his latest attempt to qualify at Talladega.
“It might have been a blessing,” Earnhardt said. “You never know what would have happened. We didn’t really test well enough to do anything. It got to where I finally just told them we weren’t good enough to make it, and we just didn’t try anymore.”