His grandfather was one of NASCAR’s greatest of all-time. A true champion on and off the track.
Decades later, Jeffrey Earnhardt is determined to win in NASCAR. But like so many other young drivers, the mission to find a top-tier partner and team is almost impossible.
Bouncing around from team-to-team, he’s landed a home — for now — at Gaunt Brothers Racing. It’s not the most ideal situation, but it enables him to run weekly, all while attempting to grow a partnership to stabilize the No. 96 team, something he’s never had in his four-year Cup Series career.
While running for back-marker teams, Earnhardt is keeping the family name on the racetrack. For someone who has an average finish of 30th in 2018, he’s been a bigger game-changer than anyone could have imagined.
Who would think that the No. 96 team would change the outcome of the NASCAR playoffs?
Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Richmond Raceway. Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL. Each of them have one thing in common: Jeffrey Earnhardt’s late-race incident changed the course of events and re-shaped the NASCAR playoff grid.
The first incident at Indianapolis proved to anger Denny Hamlin, who believed he could have won at the famed facility if it weren’t for the late caution. Rightfully so, considering Hamlin had the lead, giving him a clear-air advantage over the field until the caution flew with five laps left.
“I was saying what their actions were meaningless,” Hamlin said after the incident. “You have to recognize where you’re at… They’ve been in the sport for a while. I’ve also raced on a budget for a long time throughout the course of my career and I knew I couldn’t wreck.”
These comments stirred the pot and created a week-long debate about drivers racing hard at the back of the pack. But the only thing it’s done is give these drivers more incentive to give it their all, even when the cars they’re driving can’t go far.
Earnhardt’s Indianapolis incident wasn’t the last. It might have actually been the first in what seems like a trend at this point.
At Richmond, almost the same thing happened. The only difference was that Earnhardt spun with 73 laps left, rather than five laps. By the end of the second stage, Jimmie Johnson was ahead of Kyle Larson by one position. Thanks to that caution, Larson got around Johnson, finishing seventh. Johnson finished eighth.
The difference? It was enough to kick Johnson out of the Round of 12. One position. That’s all it took, and it happened — at least partially — because of Earnhardt’s wreck.
Of course, there was the ROVAL incident. Earnhardt got tapped by rookie Daniel Hemric coming to the checkered flag. That allowed Larson, whose car was absolutely destroyed, to limp around the stalled No. 96 machine to finish 25th instead of 26th.
The difference? He wouldn’t have tied with Johnson and Aric Almirola. He would have missed the Round of 12. Instead, he made it. Literally limping into the next round.
So what does all this mean? Should Johnson fans hate Earnhardt? Should Larson fans love the guy?
Eh, not necessarily.
Each of these events are circumstantial. It’s not Earnhardt’s fault that his car — and largely, his luck — gave out near the end of these three contests.
How would Earnhardt, who is so focused on just finishing the race, know that a spin would change the entire outcome of the playoffs? He wouldn’t. He couldn’t.
But this goes back to Hamlin’s point: Don’t wreck when you need to focus on making it to the checkered flag. Earnhardt is his own worst enemy at this point, and over-driving a car that isn’t capable of much more than what he’s giving it won’t help.
Suddenly, you have an awkward situation of a 30th-place driver literally changing the entire series. Here’s a guy who’s trying to make end’s meet, and now he’s wrecking late in races.
That doesn’t help anyone.
This isn’t just Earnhardt, though. It’s several guys in the back of the pack who want nothing more than to make a name for themselves.
Thirteen drivers have failed to cross the finish-line in at least five races they’ve run. Five DNFs is a lot in NASCAR. It’s borderline unacceptable.
So this isn’t just an Earnhardt problem. It’s a problem of drivers simply trying to get the most out of their racecars. What is the limit? How can one know until they wreck?
That’s what Earnhardt is doing. He’s battling for every position. Each point might not matter, but it’s important for a small team to show they won’t give up.
While changing the course of the playoffs might not be deliberate, it certainly is creating a conversation about when to go hard and when not to.