CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Jeffrey Earnhardt took one punch. Then another. Then yet another.
His first mixed martial arts sparring practice wasn't going well at all.
"I sat there and let the kid hit me about five times before I hit him back," the 23-year-old grandson of the late Dale Earnhardt says. "I've never really been the fighting type, but I guess once someone hits you hard enough and makes you mad enough you're going to hit him back, eventually.
"About the fifth time he hit me, I ended up fighting back."
That was just over a year ago. Jeffrey has been fighting back ever since, doing all he can to prove he's more than a spoiled kid with a famous last name.
On Friday, he will take the fight to Richmond International Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET, ESPNEWS) to drive the No. 5 Nationwide Series car for his uncle, Dale Earnhardt Jr. It's only a one-race deal for JR Motorsports, but it's one Jeffrey understands is an important and possibly defining moment in his racing career.
"I will be the first to admit I didn't appreciate the opportunities I had in the past," says Jeffrey, the son of Dale Jr.'s half brother, Kerry. "I thought the streets were paved with gold and it would all be that easy.
"The past few years I've learned real quick that they're not. I've learned that if you want something, you've got to really work for it."
That's where the MMA came in.
Dale Jr. gave Jeffrey this opportunity because of the dedication he showed in training for and winning his first -- and so far only -- MMA fight last May. Until then, NASCAR's most popular driver hadn't seen anything that warranted giving his nephew the chance to drive top equipment for the organization he and his sister, Kelley Earnhardt Miller, run.
He was disappointed in Jeffrey's focus.
"He was young and just not really wanting to put in the dedication and the focus," Dale Jr. says. "He was wanting to chase girls, be off goofing around fishing.
"To get better you've got to be near it. You've got to be focusing on your car, around your car, understanding who you're working with, dealing with the people you're working with."
There is some irony here. Many people said the same thing about Dale Jr. early in his career. As he told Playboy magazine in a 2001 interview, "Me and my friends used to party all the time, and my dad would get mad and say, 'Quit that.'"
Jeffrey laughs when reminded of that.
"I'm pretty sure everyone knows about Junior's wild side as a kid," he says. "But he was able to back it up on the track while partying. He was able to win championships [two in the Nationwide Series] while doing it."
It didn't hurt that Dale Jr. had top equipment and the full support from his dad at the time. Had Dale Earnhardt Inc. not folded soon after Dale Jr. left for Hendrick Motorsports following the 2007 season, Jeffrey might have had some of those advantages, too.
But Jeffrey doesn't use that as an excuse. He admits he threw away early opportunities that could have changed his path.
"You have to make the best of every opportunity," Jeffrey says. "You never know when it's going to be taken away."
Earning his way
Jeffrey can't help but feel sad every time he drives past the empire his grandfather built off Highway 3 just outside of Mooresville, N.C.
"It sucks to see something my grandfather built kind of be destroyed by the wrong people running it," he says of DEI. "The way I see it, in order to build something and be successful, you have to have a passion for it.
"I just don't think the passion was there when I left."
The passion wasn't in Jeffrey, either. He was only 17 at the time he signed a multiyear deal that was structured to serve as a regular job beyond his driving ability. He was asked to do things such as take inventory to encourage his maturity and help with focus on and off the track.
When DEI merged with Chip Ganassi Racing late in 2008, the organization released him. He gladly left.
"I didn't see myself being a guy standing there doing inventory," Jeffrey says. "That was not where I wanted to be in life. I took it upon myself to go out and find other opportunities. I didn't want to stay there stacking boxes."
Opportunities didn't come easily. Jeffrey drove in two Nationwide races for Curtis Key in 2009, finishing 24th and 31st. In 15 Nationwide races the past five years he has an average finish of 25.5 with no finish better than 19th for Rick Ware.
His average finish in 10 Truck series races for Ware from 2010 to 2011 was 24.8.
Not exactly a résumé that lands you in top equipment like he'll find at JRM.
"All I've had is the smaller team's equipment and going into every race understanding we don't have a winning car," Jeffrey says. "Coming over here, you have every chance of running in the top five. It's a huge, huge jump and huge excitement as a driver to know you have the opportunity to go out and do your job."
But it wasn't his driving that got him this opportunity. It was the focus Dale Jr. saw in the MMA training, that he saw when Jeffrey was in the parking lot helping to rebuild his Go Green Racing Nationwide car between the Phoenix and Las Vegas races.
"That's what you want to see," Dale Jr. says. "That kind of dedication really is impressive."
In other words, his nephew had grown up.
"People always wanted to say I was handed everything," Jeffrey says. "I wanted to make sure this time no one could use that as an excuse. In the past few years I haven't asked my dad for help. I haven't asked anyone for help. I've done it myself.
"That's helped me to understand what it takes to do this."
Fighter through and through
Michael Allen didn't know much about NASCAR when Jeffrey walked into the training facility for Renegade MMA of Charlotte last year.
He definitely didn't know much about Jeffrey.
But he knew the Earnhardt name enough to know Jeffrey had bloodlines. And he knew enough about training MMA fighters to know "the kid is an athlete."
"There's a lot of public misconception about NASCAR drivers not being athletes," Allen says. "That kid is a brick. There is not an inch of wasted space on his body. If he buckled down and trained and wanted to pursue an MMA career, I promise he could do it."
Allen was there the day Jeffrey had his first sparring practice. He reminded it's not unusual for newcomers to be initially stunned and take punches, and that the sparring partner was two-time Golden Gloves champ Derek Hyatt.
"Getting punched in the face is not a natural occurrence, and to a lot of people it comes as a shock," Allen says. "Most people freak out. But most people who are amateur fighters don't approach it like Jeffrey and get right in there with the pros."
Jeffrey had some experience in this arena. He wrestled as a freshman and sophomore in high school until it was apparent he couldn't devote the time it took to succeed in that as well as racing.
But he never went through training so rigorous as this. He was in the gym four or more hours seven days a week. When he emerged his body was buff enough to compete with Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson for the cover of fitness magazines.
"The MMA stuff was a huge step in learning who I am and how hard I'm willing to push to be successful in something … the whole dedication it takes to go in the gym and get beat up, and wake up the next morning knowing you've got to go back in there and get beat up again," Jeffrey says.
He worked so hard that the actual fight was the easy part. He won a unanimous decision over Chris Faison, battling through a guillotine choke in the third round and taking his opponent down multiple times.
Don't ask him many details about the fight, though. It's all a blur. But he remembers the vulnerability.
In a car, Jeffrey feels invincible with all the safety innovations that have come about since his grandfather was killed on the last lap of the 2001 Daytona 500. In the ring, the only thing protecting him was him.
"It was pretty exciting, actually, to step out of my comfort zone," Jeffrey says. "It was a huge learning curve in my life."
It set the stage for Friday's race, which he hopes will lead to more. Fans have told him how cool it is to see an Earnhardt driving an Earnhardt car.
And it is.
"There's really no better combination than to be driving for your family and being involved in the family business," says Kelley, who says there's open inventory on the car for a few more races this year if sponsorship can be found.
Family is what NASCAR was born on, from the Pettys to the Allisons to the Earnhardts. Jeffrey would like nothing more than to advance someday to the Cup level, where his grandfather won seven titles, and be good enough to carry the Earnhardt name in the sport long after Dale Jr. retires.
"Well I don't know if we will get that far ahead of ourselves just yet," Dale Jr. says. "I mean, it's good that we get an opportunity to work with Jeffrey.
"Hopefully our car is going to drive well, and it will run all night and give him an opportunity to really enjoy that. I feel like the pressure is on me to give him that kind of an opportunity. He is a real good guy."
He's a fighter, too, and not just in the MMA sense. Jeffrey has taken all the punches life has thrown at him and is ready to show the world he belongs in NASCAR.
"Obviously, I have a lot of work to do as a driver," Jeffrey says. "I'm also going to have to have the right opportunity. But that's my goal, to keep the Earnhardt name alive and keep the legacy going."