Jeffrey Earnhardt learning to lead

Jeffrey Earnhardt didn’t win Saturday’s season opening NASCAR Xfinity Series race, but his 15th-place finish tied for his second-best finish in the series ever. His 29 laps led was a personal best, too.

He allowed a slight smile when told of his statistical achievements, but quickly reminded, “We didn’t lead enough.’’

“We didn’t lead the last one and that’s the most important one,’’ he said. “We made adjustments because I feel like I was complaining it was too free and we ended up getting it too tight and just struggled after that.

“I was getting my butt kicked side-drafting, just lack of experience and I’ll get better at it. That’s the first time I got to go racing up front like that.’’

Earnhardt – grandson of the late seven-time NASCAR champion Dale Earnhardt – started the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 iK9 Toyota on the outside of the front row – his best career starting position. His 29 laps out front was the most he’s led in his career – not only for a one race total but eclipsing the seven laps out front total in his previous 66 series starts. Only race winner Michael Annett (45) led more.

Saturday’s race represented the best opportunity the 29-year old Earnhardt had ever had in the series. He’s competed fulltime in the Xfinity Series only one full season (2014) as he found his way in a sport that his family has established an amazing legacy in.

He is scheduled to make eight more 2019 starts for the Gibbs team – a two-time Xfinity Series championship organization.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team won Saturday’s race with driver Michael Annett, but Earnhardt  also spoke about how proud he was of his nephew.

“Jeffrey’s worked really hard to get where he is today,’’ Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “He’s sort of reinvented himself and really applied himself. So it’s built into what you see today. And he’s done that on his own. It’s who he is and authentic and I’m glad he’s in a good race car to go out there and run well.

“It will be exciting to see him at the other race tracks throughout the year.’’

Jeffrey Earnhardt  smiled widely standing on pit road after the race and asked about the huge reception he received from the fans at Daytona International Speedway, a place his grandfather is the all-time winningest driver and a place where his Uncle Dale won two Daytona 500s as well.

Many of the fans in the grandstands rose to their feet Saturday afternoon as Earnhardt led the field around – cheering loudly.

“I hope they were, I hope they were cheering,’’ Earnhardt said. “It’s cool to get out there and lead laps and have the opportunity I got. I’ve been very thankful for every opportunity, but man this one is pretty special.

His team owner Gibbs was cognizant of the warm reception too. And equally as encouraged by the job Earnhardt did behind the wheel.

“We’re just so excited to give him a chance, we’re thrilled to have him in our stuff,’’ Gibbs said on pit road after the race. “I think it’s going to be real interesting, I think there’s a lot of fan attention on him. Today we just got trapped in the wrong lane. But it’s going to be interesting as we go forward.

“I really think he’s got a chance to do a great job, a chance to win a race. We’re thrilled to have him. We love all the Earnhardts.”