NASCAR driver popularity in the Dale Jr. Era

Since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Most Popular Driver award 15 straight times, there’s no dispute which driver was the most liked by fans in the last decade and a half.

But who were the other popular drivers during that time? Well, we actually know the answer to that question because the National Motorsports Press Association (which administers the award) has released a top 10 of the voting each year since Earnhardt first won it in 2003.

Only seven of the current 10 most popular drivers will return next season — Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. That’s in alphabetical order, because the NMPA no longer releases the order of the final voting (they used to not only release the order, but also the vote totals).

Who will the other three be? It seems fairly wide open at the moment.

That’s because only two active drivers — Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — have ever made the top 10 in the past and failed to make it this year.

All other active drivers — including the likes of Denny Hamlin, Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer — have never appeared on the top 10 list.

At the bottom of this post, I’ve compiled a spreadsheet of all the data dating back to 2003. But first, a few observations:

What happened to Harvick? This is the biggest mystery from the voting. Harvick was the third-most popular driver in 2003 and 2004, then dropped to the bottom half of the list over the next decade — but was still in the top 10 for every year from 2003-13. But he has now missed the top 10 in three of the last four years (starting with the year he won the championship, oddly enough). Perhaps it’s because he’s been more affected than anyone with old-school fans abandoning the sport (assuming his fan base early on had a large portion of Dale Sr. fans after he took over that ride in 2001). What are some other theories?

— Truex on the rise. Martin Truex Jr. never made the top 10 in voting until the past two seasons — this despite being a full-time driver since 2006.

— New faces emerge. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson both made the top 10 in voting for the first time this season. Chase Elliott has made it in each of his first two years.

— Streak continues. Of the remaining active drivers, who has the longest streak of making the list? It’s a tie between Jimmie Johnson and Kasey Kahne, who have both appeared every year since 2004. But while Johnson has typically been in the bottom half of the voting when the order has been revealed, Kahne is usually toward the top (and got as high as second in 2013).

— That 2014 list! Seven of the 10 drivers from 2014 are no longer in the sport full time. Of course, that’s a bit misleading since Josh Wise made the top 10 that year based on the Reddit push. But the other six drivers (Earnhardt, Carl Edwards, Jeff Gordon, Matt Kenseth, Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart) took up a combined 68 spots in the top 10 over 15 years — and that’s going to be hard to replace.

Here’s the spreadsheet I compiled if you want to look at the raw data. “Yes” signifies they appeared in the top 10 that year; in years when the NMPA released the order, the driver’s position in the top 10 is noted.

The Top Five: Breaking down the NASCAR championship race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway…

1. Truex gets his due

Ladies and gentlemen, Martin Truex Jr. is a NASCAR Cup Series champion.

It’s too bad we can’t send messages from the future back to our past selves, because it would have been almost impossible to believe that a few years ago.

In 2014, Truex wrapped up his first season at Furniture Row Racing with a single lap led. He finished 24th in points. And he had two career wins to his name at the time.

Now he’s the dominant car of the past two seasons, with 12 wins and 4,062 laps led in that span. Plus he’s got a championship to go with it.

I’m as guilty of this as anyone, but due to his career history (two wins in his first nine seasons) it’s been easy to just say, “The cars are just that good” when talking about Truex’s success. Since he didn’t win much until Cole Pearn showed up as crew chief and Furniture Row improved, Truex probably hasn’t gotten enough credit as a driver.

That should change after Sunday night. Kyle Busch was chasing him down — with what appeared to be a better car — and stalking him in case there was even the slightest bobble in the 78 car.

“Then I could try to pounce,” Busch said. “But that never happened.”

Truex drove a flawless 20 laps and showed he’s worthy of being in the conversation about the sport’s best drivers.

Toyotas are elite, but as Brad Keselowski noted: “He’s still beating the other Toyotas, so he deserves credit for that.”

Good point, right? And that’s not lost on Truex.

Yes, he’s basically driving a Joe Gibbs Racing car — just tweaked by Furniture Row. But he’s beating all the JGR drivers with it.

“That’s the coolest part of it, is showing people that you’ve got it, that you can do it,” Truex said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to have the same thing as somebody else and beat ’em with it.”

And Truex was especially pumped about out-driving Busch, who he called “one of the best drivers ever.”

“To beat him,” Truex said, “was awesome.”

2. This Bud’s for Dale

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. told the media about his goals for the weekend — I just want to finish all the laps, he kept saying — it turns out he was only telling part of the story.

There was a reason behind the wish: He wanted to turn his No. 88 car into a mobile Whisky River, right there on pit road.

“That’s why I kept saying, ‘Man, I hope I finish all the laps,'” he said with a grin. “I know it sounds ridiculous, but that’s really why I was saying that. Everyone says, ‘Who are you going to miss the most?’ and it’s my family. (The 88 team) is my family. We are so close.

“I told them, ‘The one thing I want to do is finish the race, and we’re going to drink a beer together.’ That’s the only thing that kept coming to my mind about what I do when I get out of the car: I want to have a beer with my guys. I want to have a moment with them that sort of closes it up for us.”

So there they were, Earnhardt and the members of the 88 team, using the car as a bar and chugging Budweisers in the middle of a mob scene on pit road. If it was possible to have an intimate moment while surrounded by a couple hundred people, they had it.

Earnhardt and the crew posed for selfies, tossed beers at each other until the coolers were empty and raised toast after toast.

Ayyyyyyyyyyyyyy, they yelled in unison, holding their cans to the sky.

“Standing around the car and the heat coming off the car and drinking them cold beers — they were so cold, they had them in those Yeti (coolers), man. Those things are so awesome,” Earnhardt said. “That’s what I wanted. I said, ‘Whatever I do after the race, I don’t care about anything else — I just want to have a beer with my team.'”

It was one of the most unusual postrace scenes in NASCAR history. But it was the first step toward normalcy — something Earnhardt is craving after a weekend he called “weird.”

All the various things swirling around Earnhardt — his retirement from the Cup Series, the upcoming birth of his first child, his best friend winning the championship, his team’s Xfinity Series success, his new job with NBC Sports — it all played into it.

“I’ve got this job next year that I got to get ready for that I have no idea what the hell I’m doing. I know nothing about it. I’m freaking out,” he said. “There’s just so many things happening for me. I mean, what the hell!? It’s ridiculous what’s going on in my life. So I can’t put my emotions about finishing my Cup career in a capsule. I can’t single it out.”

So what’s next? A hangover, Earnhardt predicted. But then he hoped for an uneventful week ahead.

“It’s been an amazing weekend,” he said. “I’m ready to go feel normal, though. I’m ready to go just do nothing for awhile.”

He looked at the group of reporters. His team had left — the celebration was over for now — and Earnhardt lingered on pit road, willing to fill reporters’ notepads with golden quotes like he’d done so often over the years.

“But I’ll miss all y’all,” he said. “And I’ll be back because of that.”

With that, Earnhardt smiled, gave a thumbs up and disappeared into the crowd of waiting fans one more time.

3. Like a punch in the face

The primary reason for Kyle Busch not being able to catch Truex in the final laps, Busch said, was a tough battle with Joey Logano.

Busch had been on his way toward the front and easily passed Kevin Harvick, but then he reached Logano. That pass proved to be a lot tougher.

Logano took the top lane and pinched Busch down; Busch had to back out of it, reset for a couple laps and try again.

“Just wasting too much time with him,” Busch said afterward. “He held me up. He was there blocking every chance he got, so got a real buddy there. But that’s racing. That’s what happens.”

Logano’s move was subtle, and perhaps it was nothing more than racing hard for his own victory — but it does raise questions.

For example: Did Busch’s ongoing rivalry with Logano teammate Brad Keselowski play a part in the hard racing? Or perhaps did lingering ill will between the two — Busch did punch Logano in the face earlier this year, after all — have anything to do with it?

There aren’t any quotes from Logano on the post-race transcripts about that, but I’d love to know whether that played a role.

If so, it’s just another example of the entire season building toward the pinnacle that is Homestead.

4. Keselowski the politician

Leave it to Brad Keselowski to get one more shot in before the offseason begins.

Keselowski stumped hard for NASCAR to help Ford after claiming Toyota got too much help with its new nose this season.

If you missed it, here are his comments:

“When that car (the new Camry) rolled out at Daytona and I think we all got to see it for the first time, I think there were two reactions. One, we couldn’t believe NASCAR approved it, and, two, we were impressed by the design team over there.

“With that said, I don’t think anyone really ever had a shot this year the second that thing got put on the racetrack and approved. It kind of felt a little bit like Formula 1, where you have one car that kind of makes it through the gate heads and tails above everyone, and your hands are tied because you’re not allowed to do anything to the cars in those categories that NASCAR approves to really catch up.”

Keselowski concluded by saying he assumed Chevrolet “would be allowed to design a car the same way Toyota was” in terms of the new Camaro — and Ford doesn’t have any plans for a redesign.

“If that’s the case, we’re gonna take a drubbing next year,” Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t have any problem with what Keselowski said. He’s very calculating and certainly knows his words will get picked up and echo around the garage.

He also knows he’s going to get criticized for whining or being a loudmouth, but he’s willing to sacrifice that in order to get his point across.

If it helps, and the talk somehow generates rule changes in Ford’s favor, then it will all be worth it.

5. Thoughts on 2018

There’s going to be plenty of time to reflect on this season and what next year might bring, but here are a few thoughts on what lies ahead.

The biggest storylines heading into Daytona next year will be NASCAR’s new identity — Life After Dale, so to speak. The hype and marketing push for the young drivers will be even bigger than this year, and the pressure will increase on the likes of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney to produce.

On the track, there will be much talk about whether the new Chevrolet nose with the incoming Camaro can somehow help the manufacturer gain on Toyota. If not — and with only minor changes to the 2018 rules package — there’s no reason to think Truex and the JGR drivers can’t dominate again next season.

Overall, the goal for 2018 should be to determine a floor for NASCAR’s long slide. Attendance and ratings will almost certainly be down every week — a natural side effect of the most popular driver leaving — so that’s just going to be a fact of life. But the sport should look at that and say, “OK, this is the low point; now we rebuild.” Use it as a launching point for a new era and get on track toward strengthening NASCAR’s health for the next generation.

What I’ll remember about covering Dale Earnhardt Jr.

At the end of a Richmond race in May 2011, Dale Earnhardt Jr. pulled into the garage, climbed out of his car and disappeared into his hauler. He had finished a disappointing 19th and was particularly upset about the result that night.

In those days, I covered Earnhardt like he was the home team — meaning he warranted a story regardless of the race outcome. So I waited 15 minutes or so, but he never emerged. Finally, someone from the team came out to say he had already left.

That was really surprising. Earnhardt always talked — always, always, always. He talked after good races, ho-hum races and even those terrible races in the Lance McGrew Era.

So when he didn’t comment at Richmond, I made it the subject of a column. The premise was basically this: Earnhardt declining to talk shows he may have reached a new low in his frustrating slump.

But here’s the thing: Even that night, it was never Earnhardt’s intention to leave without comment.

I know that because I got an email the next day with an unusual subject line: “yo, its Jr here.”

Huh? Was someone pranking me? Earnhardt had never reached out to me before that.

It began: I didn’t know of any other way to contact you. I guess I could have asked Mike (Davis), but I just read your column and got this addy from the bottom of the page.

The email address looked legit, so I read on. Earnhardt wrote he was certainly upset about the result and wanted to talk with Steve Letarte in the hauler afterward — but he did not mean to leave without speaking to the media. He had asked someone if there were any reporters waiting outside and was told no by mistake, so he went out the side door closest to the exit tunnel and left the track.

Earnhardt swore he would have commented had he known any reporters were waiting.

I promise I didn’t refuse a word with the media, he wrote. I just wanted to let you know that I wouldn’t disrespect you or any of your colleagues like that. If you don’t mind passing that along to whomever you think it would concern, I would appreciate it. See ya in Darlington.

Think about that for a moment. Most drivers wouldn’t give a second thought about declining comment to a reporter after a bad race — let alone feeling bad enough about the perception to reach out and clear the air.

But the most popular driver in NASCAR? That attitude is indicative of how he treated the media throughout his career. If any driver could have gotten away with being rude over the years, it was Earnhardt. Except he was the opposite.

For those in the NASCAR media, lucky us. The biggest superstar of this era has been respectful, courteous and understanding of the role reporters play. He has given some of those most deeply thoughtful and introspective answers many of us will ever hear. And he always treats media members like peers instead of peons, which is remarkable for someone of his celebrity.

Earnhardt could have turned out to be an ass to the NASCAR media and the coverage wouldn’t have changed. Just look at how Tiger Woods treated the golf media: Even though Woods was a jerk, his value to the sport demanded endless stories.

Fortunately for us, that’s just not in Earnhardt’s personality. It’s not part of his makeup to think he’s above anyone else, and it showed in his actions time and again over the years.

For example: On pit road after a race, he would often call out to reporters with a grin as the interview concluded.

“Everyone travel safely!” he’d say while walking away. “Y’all have a good week!”

When ESPN’s Bob Pockrass started to leave as a post-race interview wound down at Texas earlier this year, Earnhardt yelled, “Hey!”

Pockrass stopped and looked back.

“Happy Easter!” Earnhardt said with a grin and a wave. “I’m not gonna see y’all for two weeks!”

But more than just being cordial, Earnhardt scored points with reporters for his detailed answers. In an era where the media increasingly relies on page views, Earnhardt was a frequent clickbait topic. That would irritate and annoy many an athlete, because their social media posts and quotes get blown up and taken out of context in the name of clicks.

If Earnhardt was upset, though, he didn’t show it. He understood reporters’ jobs, why they wrote the things they did and didn’t make an issue of it.

But to really see a glimpse into Earnhardt’s character, just look at how he approached his answers to different reporters. Earnhardt never seemed to play favorites. An unknown blogger nervously asking a question at their first race was just as likely to get a stellar, memborable answer as the beat reporters who Earnhardt encountered every week.

I was fascinated by that, and once asked him privately whether he tried harder to give good answers based on who was asking the question. He looked at me, puzzled.

“Why would I do that?” he said.

It didn’t occur to Earnhardt, because he treats everyone with respect. Whether he knew a reporter or was seeing them for the first time, he consciously tried to give his best answer.

I’m telling you all this for two reasons. First, I’m not sure we’ll ever get that fortunate again. And second, I want to write it down in order to look back and remember what it was like to cover Earnhardt during his driving career.

Look, there are still personable drivers and accommodating drivers and interesting drivers remaining in NASCAR. But Earnhardt may very well be a once-in-a-lifetime package in terms of his star power, quotability, accessibility and authenticity.

To say he’ll be missed by the media doesn’t really do it justice, and it’s also premature. Only years from now will we realize how good we had it covering a uniquely genuine athlete who never acted like he was better than those who sought to make a living writing about his story.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. celebrated Phoenix ’15 win like it was his last — and it might be

With only two races remaining in Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup Series career, the odds are increasing that a rain-shortened race two years ago at Phoenix International Raceway might stand as the final win of his career.

That might seem sort of weird —  Jeff Gordon’s last win was a stirring victory at Martinsville and Tony Stewart’s final victory came after he bumped Denny Hamlin out of the way at Sonoma — and doesn’t really fit into any kind of storybook ending.

But don’t worry, Junior Nation: If that was it, your driver celebrated the victory like it was his last.

“After our dry spell (three winless seasons from 2009-11), every win after that I celebrated it and thought about it being my last win,” he said Friday. “The Talladega win (in 2015), the Daytona 500 (in 2014), the July Daytona race (in 2015), Martinsville (in 2014), here — every one of them I was thinking it might be the last.”

There have been only two rain-shortened races in Phoenix history: Earnhardt’s win two years ago and Rusty Wallace’s October 1998 victory here. So Earnhardt isn’t bummed about the circumstances of what may be his last win — he’s happy about it.

“I felt lucky we were running good enough to win the race,” he said. “Greg (Ives) had done some pit strategy that cycled us into the lead at the particular point when the rain came. And I was thinking, ‘Man, that is how it’s supposed to work.’ You know, your crew chief is supposed to have that vision and, man, he had it that day.

“I was so proud of Greg and I felt lucky. It’s great to back into (a win) every once in awhile, or luck into them every once in a while. I have been on the other end of that where you felt like you should have won the race and don’t for some odd reason. So I was feeling like, ‘Heck yeah.'”

Fortunately for Earnhardt, the Phoenix win came the week before Homestead — which he typically would spend at his house in Key West. So that meant Earnhardt “partied hard” after the victory, he said.

“We had a good time that night down at Captain Tony’s (saloon in Key West),” he said with a laugh. “That is where we went.”

Highlights from Friday press conferences at Texas

A quick roundup of the media center happenings Friday at Texas Motor Speedway…

Chase is still pissed

Chase Elliott, who has been declared as the “People’s Champion” by Texas Motor Speedway, made it clear he is still upset with Denny Hamlin following their incident at Martinsville last week.

“Definitely not happy about it and I don’t think a whole lot has changed,” he said. “But no, I am not going to answer your questions about whether I am going to get him back or not. Don’t even ask, because you are not going to hear it from me. Just don’t go there.”

OK then!

But Elliott did answer some questions about the incident, saying he’s not out of the playoff picture on points despite being in a 26-point deficit to the cutoff position, that the fan support after Martinsville was “definitely unexpected” and the People’s Champ banner was “definitely strange.”

Elliott also said he hasn’t paid any attention to the Martinsville fallout this week, only turning on the TV to watch Netflix and refreshing his Twitter so he could see college football news, because “as you all know, the Georgia Bulldogs are ranked No. 1 right now in the country.”

“I was more consumed with that than this other stuff,” he said.

Blaney on Harvick: NBD

Ryan Blaney shrugged off the post-Martinsville discussion with Kevin Harvick that included jabs at the end of the conversation.

“We weren’t happy with each other,” Blaney said. “Both of us had our conversations and what we were upset about. I felt like we handled it fine. It was a stern talking-to (from Harvick).

“I have a lot of respect for Kevin. He helped me a lot when I got started a couple of years ago. It is just Martinsville racing, pretty much. We had a talk and I think we are fine. I am sure we are over it. Those (jabs) were just to reassure that we were good.”

Dale Jr. got a horse (kind of)

You knew Eddie Gossage was going to go big on the Dale Jr. retirement gifts, and he definitely did by riding a horse into the media center.

But the horse wasn’t actually a gift — it was to signify the track is sponsoring a therapy horse in Earnhardt’s honor.

As far as actual gifts, Gossage gave Earnhardt the top of the scoring pylon from his first Texas win, lit up with a No. 8. That was a pretty badass present, actually.

And to finish off the gifts, he gave the Earnhardts a custom-made baby stroller in the shape of a pink car.

Bubba — and NASCAR — get a sponsor

NASCAR had been working to help Richard Petty Motorsports find sponsorship, and a deal with mortgage brand Click n’ Close was apparently the result of those efforts.

RPM announced it will have three races of sponsorship from Click n’ Close, and NASCAR announced the brand will become the “Official Mortgage Provider of NASCAR.”

Anyway, Click n’ Close will sponsor RPM’s No. 43 car for the Daytona 500, as well as a Phoenix and Texas race next season. So although RPM has a ways to go to fill out the car with sponsorship, at least it’s now three races closer.

As a side note: The car was unveiled as a Ford, but Ford put out a statement before the news conference saying it has not received a commitment from RPM to return to the manufacturer next season.

Jimmie Johnson isn’t worried

Despite having the worst season of his career — at least in terms of average finish (15.5) — Johnson says he can make it to Homestead after entering Texas three points below the cutoff.

“I do feel good about getting in,” he said. “I think we are all just so used to momentum and we haven’t had that extremely high positive momentum, race-winning momentum on our side just yet. One thing I know about our team is when we get hot — and we can get hot quick — great things can happen.”

Also…

In news that didn’t take place inside the media center, Team Penske announced Miller Lite is reducing its sponsorship of the No. 2 car from 24 races to 11 next season.

That’s a big yikes, considering Miller has been such a longtime and loyal sponsor.

But Discount Tire will step up to fill the void on Keselowski’s car next season, sponsoring 10 races — including the Daytona 500 and Homestead.

The Top Five: Breaking down the Talladega playoff race

Five thoughts after Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway…

1. Actually, it wasn’t a bad race

Talladega was a restrictor-plate demolition derby unlike anything we’d seen in a long time.

— Only 14 cars were still running at the finish — 14! — and only eight of those were still held together enough to actually race for the win.

— The 11 cautions tied a race record! Yep, none of the 96 other races run at Talladega have ever had more cautions than Sunday.

— Kyle Larson was a lap down — and finished 13th! Trevor Bayne, whose car appears on the crash report twice, finished third!

Given all that, it’s understandable if people look at the results and go, “Ugh, what a joke.” Not to go all #WellActually on you, but it really was a good race up until the point the carnage broke out.

Think about it: The first Big One didn’t take place until there were 17 laps to go. Prior to that, the field was two-, three- and even four-wide in a brilliant display of how good plate racing can be. There were lead changes and strategy and dicey moves, and no one spent time hanging at the back trying to avoid the wreck.

They actually raced.

Only at the end, when it was Go Time, did it really get crazy and kind of ridiculous. But that’s not really a surprise; after all, it’s Talladega.

As long as cars aren’t flipping or flying — which they didn’t on Sunday — the rest of it is just side effect of what was a pretty thrilling show.

2. Master Kes

For a last-lap pass, there didn’t seem to be too much excitement from the crowd at Talladega. The fans seemed deflated after Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished seventh, so even Brad Keselowski’s thrilling move didn’t save the day for them.

But it was fitting that Keselowski won Earnhardt’s final plate race, because it was a symbolic passing of the torch from the best plate racer of this generation to the next.

Keselowski has now won at Talladega five times and six wins overall in restrictor-plate points races. Earnhardt finished his career with six Talladega wins and had 10 plate wins in points races.

Though Talladega unquestionably contains a lot of randomness in surviving long enough to be there at the end, the actual winning moves often require a very specific skill. And Keselowski might be the best at it.

We often see the race leader be able to block a late run. But Ryan Newman couldn’t do it — granted, he had some degree of nose damage — and Keselowski ended up playing the finish perfectly. He deserves a ton of credit for the execution.

“You’d love to be able to pat yourself on the back and say it’s all skill, but there is some luck that’s involved in this,” Keselowski said. “… You know when you come here that probably three out of every four races you’re going to get caught up in a wreck or something like that happens.

“But the races where you have the good fortune, where you don’t get caught up in a wreck or you don’t have something break or any of those things, you have to take those races, run up front and win them. And I think that’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Junior Nation probably doesn’t give a crap about all this, given their disappointment, but it’s important to recognize we’re watching a rare and unique talent when Keselowski has the chance to win at Talladega.

3. Playoff race?

Fans still give Kyle Busch a hard time for saying Talladega and Daytona aren’t “real” racing. But seriously — is it? And does it belong in the playoffs?

Those questions are likely to pop up after a day when only two of the 12 playoff drivers finished on the lead lap.

“I’m sure there are a lot of competitors who say they wish (Talladega wasn’t in the playoffs), because you can’t control your own fate,” Denny Hamlin said after finishing sixth. “In no other sport does your competition make a mistake and it cost you. In our sport, it does.”

Hamlin suggested to NBC Sports last week that Talladega should be the regular season finale instead of a playoff race.

And indeed, that seems like a better solution. It doesn’t feel right in a lot of ways for the outcome of a championship to be impacted by an event with so much randomness. Because, let’s be honest: Kyle Busch was right.

Whether it’s “real racing” or not, though, it definitely won’t be changing anytime soon.

“I don’t know that there’s a desire to have a different product here at this type of racetrack,” said Ryan Newman, who was once one of the most outspoken drivers against plate racing.

4. Dale Jr.’s health

There were tens of thousands of people rooting for Earnhardt to win his final restrictor-plate race, which felt like his last, best shot at a victory before he retires.

Personally, I was just hoping he made it through the race without getting another concussion.

That sounds sort of dark, but it’s the truth. All season, I’ve thought in the back of my head: “I wonder if he can get through the plate races without suffering a huge hit.” And — luckily — he did. He had to make it through three close calls to do it, but he survived.

“This was one that I was worried about in the back of my mind,” Earnhardt said afterward. “I was a little concerned. But you can’t win the race if you race scared, and I’ve raced scared here before, and you don’t do well when that happens. So you have to block it out and just go out there and take the risks and hope that it’s just not your day to get in one of those accidents. And it wasn’t.”

Earnhardt fans didn’t get the win they wanted, but this was also a victory: Their driver competed for the win all day and left with his health intact, meaning he just has to make it five more races.

Wrecks can happen anywhere, but the chances sure are a lot lower at other tracks.

And along those lines, Earnhardt felt that by racing hard, he proved something to the critics who charged he has been too timid at times this season.

“Anyone who questions our desire to be here and compete this year and our desire to run hard and face can look at the risks that we took this afternoon, knowing that any of those crashes would have probably given me a bit of an injury that would have held me out of the rest of the season,” he said.

5. Pointed situation

Kyle Busch might not make it past Round 2 of the playoffs.

That’s crazy, isn’t it? All year long, it’s pretty much been a Martin Truex Jr./Busch/Kyle Larson show. Those three seemed to be the main title contenders going into the playoffs, and the conventional wisdom was Busch was at least a lock for Round 3 thanks to his 41 playoff points.

Welp…

Busch is currently seven points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final playoff spot entering Kansas. And Matt Kenseth is just one point behind him, so it’s not like he can focus just on beating one or two drivers next week.

Yeah, he could go win there — Busch has five straight top-five finishes at Kansas, including a victory last year in the spring. But there’s a very real chance he could fail to make the cut.

On a similar note, Johnson could be out if he doesn’t have a good run — which is also hard to believe.

I doubt many of us would have predicted two of the elite Toyotas or the seven-time champion would be in danger of failing to make it past Round 2, but that’s the case. And it’s going to make Kansas a very interesting cutoff race.

Video: Dale Earnhardt Jr. sounds off on post-race tire blowouts

Dale Earnhardt Jr. has been outspoken on the intentional tire blowout issue recently, and he responded to a question at New Hampshire with a rant on the topic.

Here’s a video of his comments, which are transcribed below:

What is your feeling about the burnouts after the race for post-race celebrations where it can blow out tires and damage quarterpanels? If you win, what is your burnout going to be like?

Well that would be like all the other burnouts. I have never blown out a tire on purpose. But we have been doing burnouts for 30 years it seems like. It just seems like the Gen 6 car, once everybody started figuring out how to trick the underbody and things like that, everybody blows the tires out.

It is just hard for me to see the logic in suspending a crew chief, car chief for some tape flapping on the spoiler when the winner drives into Victory Lane with the rear of the car tore all to hell. I don’t see how that doesn’t come across anybody’s conscious or common sense. I don’t understand.

It doesn’t make any sense to me. And it never has. I have been kind of waiting all this time for NASCAR to eventually say, “Look, we would just rather you guys not blow the tires out.” They talk about not wanting to be the “fun police” — being the “fun police” is not on the radar of their damn problems. That is a cop out in my opinion.

But I think you can do burnouts without blowing the tires out. That happened for years. I don’t remember it too much with the COT, but can anybody tell me who the last guy is who didn’t blow his tires out?

(Several media members responded by saying Ryan Blaney.)

The first Pocono race. I mean, will they blow them out at the end of every race during the playoffs? Is that just the new norm? It didn’t really bother me until I thought about it and I’m like, “The 24 is going to get suspended — crew chief, car chief — for this tape mess and the winner of the race is riding into victory lane with the damn rear of the car tore all to hell.” You can’t even tech it.

And I love Martin (Truex Jr.) and it’s not about Martin. I mean every guy out there has done it. I don’t know that will be a very popular opinion about it, but that is how I feel.

Why is it a cop out?

I just feel like that they should step up. They’re the governing body. It’s obvious it’s done intentionally. It’s not unintentional. And you cannot tech the race car. They have to jack it up and put tires on it. If you’re watching the video of these crewmen trying to fix that tape on that spoiler of the 24 car, imagine what the hell’s going on with the car that gets to jack it up and put tires on it before it can go across the (laser platform).

We could go on and on about it. It’s something I don’t really got to worry about no more after the end of this season. But I’ve been feeling this way about the blowouts for a long time. It’s like, “Damn, why don’t they just tell them to stop?” You can do a damn burnout without blowing the tires out. Look at pretty much every win from 2000 all the way through the COT, you know?

There are a lot of burnouts. You have to deliberately do that. It’s not like, “Oh, my bad. Blew my tire.” I mean, it’s deliberate. So it tells me there’s some purpose behind it. I don’t know why it’s so hard for NASCAR to say, “Look, man, do some donuts. You can do donuts without blowing the tires out. But you don’t have to blow the tires.”

But until they tell them not to do it, it’s fair game. It just upset me with what happened to Chase (Elliott) and how they sort of got zeroed-in on when all this is sort of going on right under everybody’s nose. It doesn’t make sense.