Analysis: How Dale Earnhardt Jr. can make NASCAR’s playoffs despite his slow start
Dale Jr. is down but he’s far from out.
Earnhardt has endured an absolutely horrific start to his final full-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series campaign. It’s a season best described as Murphy’s Law in the sense that whatever could go wrong has thus far.
Through nine races, the 14-time most popular driver has just one top-10 (a fifth-place at Texas) and an average finish of 24.4 due to several crashes and an admitted lack of execution.
As a result, he’s 24th in the championship standings and already 60 points removed from the final playoff spot. With that said, Earnhardt isn’t exactly sweating bullets yet.
“I ain’t worried about all that,” Earnhardt said during a press conference on Friday at Talladega Superspeedway. “I got so much going on. I trust in the team and Greg (Ives, crew chief) and everybody to know that when we get to certain race tracks we’ve got the best car we need. We’ve got a good set-up under the car and we are doing the best thing we can for ourselves to be competitive whether we are in the Playoffs, whether it’s the second race of the year or the last race of the year.
“We take the best car we can and give it our best effort. We just need to put together some races here. We’ve got to get a good handful of races under our belt that are finishes that we can be proud of and see where that nets us on the points deal, but it would be nice if we could just go ahead and get a win out of the way and get on with it.”
Based on their pedigree together, Earnhardt and Ives should be able to scratch out a victory together at some point. The No. 88 team won three times back in 2015 and consistently hovered around the top-10 before Earnhardt’s season prematurely ended due to a concussion he received over the summer.
But what if he doesn’t win?
Historically speaking the 42-year-old will need an average overall finish of about 16th in the regular season to sneak into the playoffs. That’s roughly a 13th place average for the remaining 17 races — more or less the type of production he’s offered over the past half-decade.
Don’t forget that stage points can also work to his benefit or detriment this season.
From a big picture standpoint, every stage matters to Earnhardt now. If Earnhardt can start to run inside the top-10, he will start accumulating points, and if he can stay there through the end of these races, he will most definitely pick up the points he requires to make the Field of 16.
This very well could come down to how many surprise winners reach Victory Lane this season. Sure, Earnhardt has to be looked at as one of the favorites this weekend if such a thing even exists at Talladega, but a repeat of a David Ragan, Aric Almirola-type triumph will absolutely make his points-earning playoff options tougher.
Of course, Earnhardt could simply win a race, maybe even as early as Sunday afternoon and make this all a moot point.
“It’s going to be a fun year regardless of how things shake up in the end,” Earnhardt said. “I do think we can win some races, I really do.”