Its safe to say that Dale Earnhardt Jr’s back is against the wall after losing his crew chief for a week over a lug nut penalty and comes into the final race of the season without a playoff spot. What makes the situation even more daunting is the fact that JR is planning to retire at the end of the season, which means he is in danger of being the first retired Cup Series driver under the new playoff system to not make the playoffs in his final year.
Jeff Gordon became the first driver to officially do it in 2015 after nabbing a victory at Martinsville and guaranteeing himself a spot in the final four at Homestead. Gordon ultimately came up short to eventual championship winner, Kevin Harvick, but Gordon definitely went out with a bang in his final season. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards followed that up by both making the playoffs in their final season, but Stewart was eliminated in the first round and Carl Edwards was accidentally wrecked by Joey Logano in the final laps at Homestead.
And then there’s JR. A man that despite his popularity and amazing talent behind the wheel of a race car over the past couple years, now finds himself without a playoff position and one race to go in the regular season. On top of that, he has lost his long time crew chief, Greg Ives, for one race due to a lug nut penalty and will have to rely on interim crew chief, Travis Mack for a last chance win at Richmond.
While the decision to suspend Dale Earnhardt JR’s crew chief is an unfortunate end to one of NASCAR’s most enigmatic and talented individuals playoff hopes, but it also has a silver lining to it. More then anything, the penalty to the #88 crew proves that NASCAR isn’t willing to play favorites anymore and will give even their most popular driver the punishment they deserve.
Again, not good for JR, his fans, or his playoff hopes, but its good for the sport. Not only does it send the insanely clear message that NASCAR no one is immune to a penalty, but also that the sport is willing to penalize a driver even when its not in their best interests to do so. If nothing else, this has to be one of the best decisions NASCAR has made all year and should be heralded as a new era of NASCAR.
In fact, if you compare it to the mistake that NASCAR made two years ago in the fall Talladega playoff race where Dale JR got a second chance at snatching the victory and making it to the next round of the postseason, after a huge accident broke out during the restart. Unfortunately for NASCAR, the incident, especially at a Super Speedway was unprecedented and there was mass confusion over if it counted as an official restart.
Things only got worse when not even the announcers could decide whether or not the restart counted and NASCAR made the disastrous decision of ruling the restart invalid and giving their golden boy one last chance at a Talladega win. Whether that was NASCAR’s intentions or they really wanted the fans to go home with a good finish is impossible to know, but it didn’t look good given the position JR was in and what a win would mean for the playoffs.