Race Weekend Central

2-Headed Monster: Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the Playoffs?

This week’s Fronstretch debate question: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2017 season has gotten off to a slow start. This being his last full-time NASCAR season, he’d love nothing more to earn a playoff spot and have a shot to win a championship, but as of now, the No. 88’s playoff chances are a bit up in the air.

Will the sport’s 14-time Most Popular Driver make the playoffs in his final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season, or will he miss being a part of the 16-car field?

Going out with a Fight

Look: I know Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s 2017 season has been nowhere near what he expected it to be 11 races in. He currently sits 24th in the points standings and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team hasn’t really shown any signs of be able to contend for race wins.

With that being said, I do think he finds a way to squeak his way into the playoffs in his final season.

Junebug has amassed only one top five finish this season, coming at Fontana. But I expect those numbers to balloon and for Earnhardt Jr. to consistently run better for the next couple months. Let’s take a look at the next six races and how he could possibly fare.

Well, first off, he has a win at five of the six race tracks (Sonoma being the lone track where he hasn’t won). Charlotte, Dover, Pocono, Michigan and Daytona are all tracks that have been extremely kind to the Kannapolis, N.C. native throughout his career, which has spanned almost two full decades. His last win at Daytona came in 2015, Pocono in 2014 (twice), Michigan in 2012, Charlotte in 2000 (All-Star race) and Dover in 2001. Although some of these tracks haven’t seen the No. 88 grace victory lane in recent memory, that doesn’t mean that it might not change in the next two months.

Greg Ives, the man at the helm of the No. 88 team, hasn’t had his best season, either. Besides the trolls on social media calling for his head, he has faith in himself and his team that they can work out the kinks and find victory lane.  After a crazily bad-luck ridden 11 races of the season, I think Ives, Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team have worked out the kinks and an uptake in their performance will be seen soon.

The past five full-time seasons, Earnhardt Jr. has qualified for the playoffs and hasn’t finished below 12th in the standings. When talking about full-time seasons, his 2016 season must be mentioned. Coming back from a concussion, his comeback wasn’t expected to be great performance wise. But I don’t think it was supposed to be this bad, either. I take him at his word when he says he feels as healthy as he ever has and that he feels at the top of his game. But at a certain point, one has to look in the mirror and say: is it me?

For Dale Earnhardt Jr., I don’t think he’s at the stage yet, nor do I think he’s the problem.

I also know that each situation is completely different, but then injuries to Tony Stewart and Kyle Busch ended up working out pretty well for them. Last year, Stewart’s lone win came at Sonoma (a race that can be deemed a “wild card” along with Watkins Glen). It’s not crazy to think that Earnhardt Jr. could earn his first career road course win. His previous best finish was third in 2014 at Sonoma.

Busch’s 2015 season was a bit different. Missing the first third or so of the season, he took the circuit by storm and won almost everything and anything in sight. He wound up winning his first career championship when the checkered flag flew at Homestead-Miami Speedway, completing his improvable comeback.

I’m not saying Dale Jr. is going to win the title, I’m not saying he’s going to win at Sonoma on a last second, final corner pass after giving up the lead on the white flag lap. All I’m saying is that Dale Earnhardt Jr. has always had the odds stacked against him throughout his entire life, moreover  his racing career. That’s why I’m not betting against driver No. 88 in his final season.

– Davey Segal

This Ain’t No Fairytale, This is Real Life

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss the playoffs this season because ‘happily ever after’ does not exist in NASCAR.

I always think of Richard Petty’s remark that he always envisioned that he would leave the sport in a blaze of glory, but instead he left in a blaze, as he crashed his car and had it catch fire in his farewell race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1992.

2017 Kansas I CUP Tony Stewart Barry Cantrell NKP
Tony Stewart may have lucked into a win at Sonoma in his final season but otherwise struggled (photo: Barry Cantrell / NKP)

It worked out for Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Rusty Wallace to all make it into the playoffs during their farewell tours, so let’s examine what worked for them that will not play out for Earnhardt.

Gordon and Wallace were still competing at a high level when they announced their retirements, and they both gummed their way into the playoffs through consistent finishes in their final seasons.

Stewart’s gaining of a playoff spot last season was a fluke, or, in my opinion, a conspiracy, but that is another debate for another time. He missed the first quarter of the season and ran poorly most of the time when he did come back. A well-timed caution put him in position to win at Sonoma Raceway and he did just that.

Earnhardt seems to be in the same predicament that Stewart was during his final seasons in the sport––both drivers faced serious injuries and did not come back as the same driver after those injuries. Stewart, due to his leg and back injuries, was a shade of his former self that won three championships.

After missing the last half of the 2016 season due to concussions, Earnhardt also seems to no longer be the elite driver that he once was. Through 11 races, he has only netted one top 10 finish, a fifth place effort at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt has five finishes of 30th or worse. To put that in perspective, that is more than he had during the entire 2015 season, his last season where he ran all 36 races.

I will admit that Earnhardt has had some terrible luck so far this season, but a huge part of making the playoffs is luck. The two-time Daytona 500 champion currently sits 25th in points, and even if the No. 88 team turns its fortunes around, Earnhardt would likely need to win a race to make the postseason.

In the past, you could circle the July race at Daytona International Speedway or the two races at Pocono Raceway for places where Earnhardt could win and get in to the playoffs, but so far, the No. 88 has not shown the speed necessary to win a race.

Essentially, Earnhardt would need a “Tony Stewart at Sonoma” moment at one of the 15 remaining races before the cutoff, and it seems unlikely that such a moment would occur two years in a row.

Another thing that Earnhardt has working against him is that the playoff field is absolutely stacked with tough contenders this season. There are currently seven drivers, Kasey Kahne, Matt Kenseth, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Paul Menard, Chris Buescher and A.J. Allmendinger, in addition to Earnhardt that have made the playoffs before that would miss out on the postseason if the regular season ended today.

There is also a great number of drivers who have not won so far this season to lock themselves into the playoffs, but likely will in the next 15 races. That list includes Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano (he won at Richmond International Raceway, but failed the post-race inspection), Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin.

If you add those eight drivers to the seven that have already won this season to lock themselves in, that leaves one playoff spot. Earnhardt is going to have a tough time beating out Kahne, Kenseth and Trevor Bayne, as well as rookies Erik Jones and Daniel Suarez, who have shown excellent speed all season.

Earnhardt had his time as an elite driver in the sport and will likely be in the Hall of Fame one day, but he will not get the privilege of going out in a blaze of glory.

On the bright side, Logano proved that NASCAR will not take the win away when the car fails post-race inspection. Therefore, if Earnhardt misses the playoffs and has nothing to race for in his final 10 starts other than wins, then his team should break every rule possible during that span to get the No. 88 in Victory Lane. I am sure that Junior Nation would not object.

– Michael Massie

About the author

Davey is in his fifth season with Frontstretch and currently serves as a multimedia editor and reporter. He authors the "NASCAR Mailbox" column, spearheads the site's video content and hosts the Frontstretch Podcast weekly. He's covered the K&N Pro Series and ARCA extensively for NASCAR.com and currently serves as an associate producer for SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and production assistant for NBC Sports Washington. Follow him on Twitter @DaveyCenter.

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babydufus

heh… maybe he’ll get in by fan vote..

why not? It wouldn’t make “play offs” in racing any more or less valid than it is now…

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