Dale Earnhardt Jr. Doesn’t Mince Words on Playoff Format and Who He Blames for Embarrassing Finishes at Phoenix and Martinsville
Dale Earnhardt Jr., like every other NASCAR fan watching, saw what happened during the Championship 4 Truck Series race in Phoenix. He saw the chaotic finish the week before in the Xfinity Series race at Martinsville.
This week, on his popular podcast, the NASCAR Hall of Famer suggested both of those races were quite similar in their disastrous endings. Earnhardt Jr. said while the drivers are partially to blame, the governing body is largely responsible for the embarrassing finishes because of the current playoff format.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. addresses Carson Hocevar-Corey Heim conflict at Phoenix
In the penultimate race weekend of the 2023 NASCAR season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn’t mince words during the NBC broadcast of the Martinsville Cup Series race after Carson Hocevar hooked Ty Gibbs and sent the No. 54 car for a spin.
“And we know that Hocevar has a habit of doing that,” Earnhardt said. “I think he’s trying to work on it, but when you come to the Cup Series and do that, you’re gonna get some hard lessons from these guys. Because there’s not a lot of people going to stand up to you in the Truck Series or Xfinity Series, but this Cup Series is a little bit different.”
Less than a week later, during the Truck Series Championship 4 race at Phoenix, the 20-year-old driver was at it again, getting into the left rear of fellow title contender Corey Heim late in the race. Hocevar sent the No. 11 for a spin, severely damaging his chances at winning the title. The Tricon Garage driver retaliated with three laps to go in the race by running the No. 42 in the fence.
Junior talked about that conflict this week on the Dale Jr. Download and interestingly revealed what he will remember about the incident.
“I, in a couple of weeks, will soon forget any involvement that Heim had in all of this. I will forget that Heim wrecked him with four to go. I will forget that that cost [Grant] Emfinger the championship. I will forget all of that in about two weeks.
“What I will not have forgotten is what Carson has been doing. That’s the whole thing for me. And I believe that’s probably likely for anybody else in the industry.”
Dale Earnhardt Jr. blames playoff system for recent chaotic finishes
While Earnhardt said the young driver, who will run full-time in the Cup Series in 2024, has deservedly earned his bad on-track reputation for repeatedly initiating contact with others, the NBC analyst said the situation at Phoenix in the trucks was very similar to what took place at Martinsville the week before. At the end of the Xfinity Series race, Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Hill and Sheldon Creed wrecked each other and numerous other cars on the final lap in overtime.
“The Truck Series, to me, as far as how the race got out of hand and unraveled, I disagree a little bit with you, Mike,” Earnhardt said to his podcast co-host Mike Davis. “I see it as exactly how the Xfinity race went at Martinsville.
“I put a lot on the drivers, but I also put a ton on this system, the playoffs. It’s a one-race-for-everything playoff scenario. At Phoenix for the title with three laps to go, I don’t know what you’re supposed to expect. And the Xfinity race at Martinsville, the same thing, if not more. You’ve got eight people in that moment trying to get through.”
Had different feelings on playoffs not too long ago
Interestingly, Earnhardt’s position on the 2023 playoffs differs from what he had to say about the postseason just two years ago. At the conclusion of the 2021 season, the two-time Daytona 500 winner was encouraged about the racing product and how the playoff format had been consistent for several years — unlike the multiple changes in previous years, which allowed fans to better understand the rules and how they all worked.
“Right now, I love where we are with Phoenix,” Earnhardt said in November 2021. “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 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.”
NASCAR has certainly developed a brand identity through its playoff system. Based on what happened over the final two weekends of the season in those playoffs, at least according to Earnhardt and others, it might be time to revisit the format.