This week on the Dale Jr. Download, Dale Earnhardt Jr. talked about the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season, the exciting conclusion to the playoffs in Phoenix, and the buzz surrounding the event for the entire weekend. He wants it to stay that way.
Reflecting on the success of this past weekend also reminded him of the postseasons in the not-so-distant past and how the format changed every couple of years. Many fans complained. The two-time Daytona 500 winner candidly admitted that his passion and love for the sport waned in the midst of all of those changes.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. and NASCAR fans endure constant change in postseason
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was in the hunt for the title in 2004, the year NASCAR created its first version of the playoffs known as the Chase for the Championship. That format included all drivers in the top 10, and any others within 400 points of the leader after the first 26 races would earn a berth in the Chase. Earnhardt finished fifth that first year.
The format lasted for a couple of seasons before it changed in 2007. Unfortunately for race fans and drivers, change would become a common theme over the next decade.
NASCAR modified the playoff format again in 2011, 2014, and 2017, including changes to the field size and how drivers were eliminated. Fans were understandably frustrated and vocal about the constant change. Many took to social media to express their concerns. While they were much less vocal, in the garage, many drivers weren’t happy.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. candidly admits he lost some of his love for NASCAR
During all the postseason modifications, Dale Earnhardt Jr. kept his head down and raced, trying to win a championship regardless of the format. This week on his podcast, Earnhardt, who never shies away from sharing his opinion, offered one of his most blunt assessments of NASCAR and its decision to change the playoffs consistently in the past.
“When we start a new thing with this playoffs, we didn’t have any brand continuity. No identity,” he said. “The playoffs kept changing. And how it happened kept changing. And the amount of people to get in kept changing. It was very, very frustrating. I lost a lot of pride in it. I lost the importance of it. I lost a lot of belief in it, right. My passion for this whole sport and love for it waned a little bit in those moments when the playoffs kept bouncing around from this and that and the other.”
The fans’ discontent with NASCAR and its handling of the playoffs is one thing. But when the sport’s biggest star is not happy with the situation, it’s problematic. Thankfully for Earnhardt and race fans, 2017 saw the last major modification to the postseason format.
Happy to see playoffs have stabilized since 2017
Since 2017, when the postseason officially became known as the NASCAR Playoffs, the format has stabilized. The size of the field and the points system used during the regular season and postseason have remained the same. Earnhardt said he’s been happy with what he’s seen in the last five years.
“Well, we found a little continuity here lately, right,” he said. “It’s kind of sustained as far as the field size and the elimination and how it happens. How it plays out has had a little bit of continuity, and I like that. I want that. I think we’re building some identity. We’re building equity in the system now. Now that it’s sustained and found some stability, right.”
One thing that has changed is the location of the final race of the season, which switched from Homestead to Phoenix in 2020. The NASCAR Hall of Famer is OK with that.
“Right now, I love where we are with Phoenix,” Earnhardt said. “I know last year or the last couple of years, the way the race went at Phoenix has caused some conversation about us changing that date or moving to another place because the vibe wasn’t there. But this year, it was. I like what we’re doing and hope that we can stay this way for a little while.
“I think as far as the points, how we add them up, the elimination, all the factors, the size of of the field, let’s just stay this way for a little bit. Build some equity. Build some brand identity in it. Some continuity so fans are now understanding what to expect and what drivers need to do, and we can carry this on for a while. I’m really liking where we are.”
If the NASCAR playoffs get the Dale Earnhardt Jr. seal of approval, it’s a pretty safe bet that most of the fans feel the same way. If NASCAR is smart about it, the organization will remember the excitement surrounding this weekend’s race at Phoenix and try to replicate it going forward.
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