The Earnhardt name, legacy remain on the track -- for now

Jeffrey Earnhardt plans to drive the No. 00 car in the Daytona 500. Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- Jeffrey Earnhardt didn't want to be the one.

He didn't want to carry the blame of an Earnhardt not racing in the Daytona 500. If he didn't find a ride for the race Sunday, no Earnhardt would compete in NASCAR's biggest event for the first time in 40 years.

While Dale Earnhardt Jr. played a role in the scenario, too, with his retirement from NASCAR Cup racing after last season, his 28-year-old nephew, Jeffrey, was thought to have a ride when it was announced last October that he would return to Circle Sport-TMG as driver of the No. 33 car.

But Circle Sport and TMG split, leaving Jeffrey Earnhardt looking for a ride. He landed at StarCom Racing a couple weeks ago and hopes to drive the No. 00 Cup car all season.

The legacy started in 1978 by seven-time Cup champion Dale Earnhardt Sr. lives on.

"It would have been a little disappointing [with no Earnhardt in the 500]," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I was glad he got an opportunity to compete. I want to see him continue to compete because I know he loves to drive, and I know he's not settled [with his career]. ... I think for the diehard Earnhardt fans, it matters.

"I'm not sure it matters much to the casual fan whether there is an Earnhardt in the field or not."

How long the Earnhardt name or legacy will remain on the track is hard to predict. Jeffrey is still trying to find solid footing. He has 134 starts in NASCAR's three national series, with one top-10 finish. He often hasn't been in great equipment and is with his third Cup team in three years.

"I keep telling everybody that I'd hate to be the reason to break the streak of consecutive years an Earnhardt has been in the 500," he said. "It was definitely stressful when the whole deal happened. One door closed for a better one to open. I feel pretty good with the situation I'm in now."

The StarCom team has bought eight chassis and five engines from Richard Childress Racing, and Earnhardt is working on putting together sponsorship for the full season. He has driven in Cup because that is where his sponsors have wanted him to race, and he's trying to find additional sponsorship to have more races in Xfinity or trucks.

"One of the biggest things for me in my career is to be able to continue that legacy my grandfather built," he said. "I know how much that meant to him, and I definitely want to try to keep that going as long as possible. ...I've been through a lot of rough deals and had a lot of uncertainties, I guess."

Jeffrey is the son of Kerry, the older brother of Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Earnhardt Miller has three children, Karsyn Elledge, Kennedy Elledge and Wyatt Miller. Karsyn is a senior in high school and is applying to college; her parents want her to go to school before embarking on any full-time racing career. She has raced outlaw karts for several years, competed in a Late Model race at Hickory (North Carolina) Motor Speedway in 2016 and aspires to race a midget car.

Karsyn has interests other than racing and appears to be a natural with the camera on her. She has hosted a NASCAR show on Nickelodeon for three years. Her racing plans are uncertain because, like all racers, she is looking for sponsorship.

"She's interested in wanting to continue racing, and she's interested in the dirt side of things right now," Earnhardt Miller said. "If she can put something together that lines up with going to college and works together with that, that's what she'd really like to do. She's been talking with different team owners and people who race midgets to see what she can do."

Karsyn's younger sister, Kennedy, is 12 and has no interest in racing. Her younger brother, Wyatt, turns 6 this week. Earnhardt Jr. said it will be interesting to see if Wyatt wants to follow in the family footsteps. Kelley's husband, L.W. Miller, is a former modified driver.

"We got him a go-kart and tried to get him to fool around with it a little bit, but he's more interested in hunting and being with his dad and all that stuff. He doesn't really seem to care too much about the driving," Earnhardt Jr. said.

Earnhardt Miller said she will not try to steer the kids toward becoming race car drivers. And uncle Dale Jr. said the same.

"I'm trying not to put any pressure on [Karsyn]," Earnhardt Jr. said. "She's a senior in school and trying to decide on her college future. ... She seems to be real happy to be racing on dirt. That may be as far as she ever goes, which is perfectly fine with me.

"I think she could do really well if she wanted to pursue it and get in big sprint cars, like Erin Crocker."

Earnhardt Miller said she wants her kids to do what they love to do. If that's racing, that's great.

"I just don't see the need for them to eat, sleep and breathe it right now," she said. "Especially Wyatt at 6, if he's interested in it, great. If he wants to do it when he's 9, awesome, and we'll support him however we can."

Earnhardt Miller says the family is not going to fund the racing of the kids, so that makes college important to make sure they can meet their potential out of racing.

"The model is people investing in the drivers, whether that's sponsors or teams, etc., and I don't see spending the college education or my retirement on their racing career," said Earnhardt Miller, who was known to be a solid late model racer in the late 1990s.

"If it was just that easy [to use family money], we'd all be racing. I'd be racing, too. L.W. would still be racing. The whole family would still be racing."

If any of the kids do race, they could learn some lessons from Jeffrey.

"From the first time I ever stepped foot in a race car, I showed up to the track and everyone was like, 'His last name is Earnhardt. He's going to win the race,'" Jeffrey Earnhardt said. "I wish wins came that easy.

"I understand the situation I'm in. I know what it takes. My grandpa didn't become a champion by not busting his ass and not working really hard to get there. Wins aren't just handed to you."